Cultures the world over have commemorated death with richly complex traditions and rituals. As Halloween approaches each year, examining the intersection between Western Christianity and the traditions around of death become more apropos. It’s no coincidence that Halloween falls at the peak of the season of death and decay in the natural world. Besides Memorial Day, it is arguably the only collective, public celebration or holiday that touches upon this basic human experience, death.
While we do have ceremony and remembrances upon the death of a loved ones, there are few intentional avenues of celebration or ritual beyond the initial events surrounding the bereavement. In our culture, the act of commemoration often becomes private. A visit to a gravesite on a birthday, or a silent prayer, usually individually or in small intimate groups is typical. In contrast, many cultures around the world honor the dead more regularly in public displays of appreciation.
As you may remember, two years ago, my family traveled to Madagascar where an ancient practice of honoring the dead is central to their culture today. Every five to seven years, families visit the tombs for the “turning of the bones,” in a deeply spiritual practice of exhuming the bones of their loved ones and offering gifts to the corpses. The tradition takes place throughout the year and can be seen across the landscape as families and friends assemble on hilltop mounts where tombs are scattered across the landscape.
This year, there are two public gatherings being held on “All Saints Day” to commemorate the dead and celebrate and explore death as part of the circle of life.
New, but ancient in its origin, is the celebration of Dia de los Muertos. On Friday (Nov. 1), in the Methow Valley Community Center gym, resident expert Imelda Cervantes de Barnard with friends will host an educational and participatory crafting event and open house in the tradition of the Mexican holiday “Day of the Dead.” The hosts will provide instructions and materials with insights into the symbolism of sugar skulls, wreaths and decorations to adorn memorial altars. Participants will be encouraged to build altars in honor of their fallen loved ones. Anyone interested in learning about this tradition is invited to participate during the altar-building session anytime from 11 a.m.-4 p.m., or attend at 5 p.m. when the doors will reopen to the public for an open house to display the alters. Treats will be on hand and hopefully some fabulous costumes.
Also, on Friday (Nov. 1) is Death Café, a discussion group meeting at Confluence Gallery at 7 p.m. The free gathering is hosted by Cascades Natural Burial, a newly formed nonprofit with the mission of creating a natural burial site in the Methow Valley to offer an alternative to the conventional (and toxic) modern method of embalming. Natural burial involves wrapping or shrouding the body in fully compostable materials so that the body can naturally decompose back into the earth, enriching the soul and continuing the circle the life. Death Café will include tea, cake, (and maybe wine) for anyone interested in talking about death or learning more about natural burial.
Enough about death, on to the lighter side of Halloween — dressing up. It isn’t for everyone, but popular psychology tells us it’s perfecting normal to do it — as long as we do it in the company of others. According to psychologytoday.com, wearing a costume is a form of social connection and it’s a reflection of how we want others to perceive us. The Senior Center will be hosting a costume contest at the Oct. 31 lunch. Candy will be on the menu and seniors can channel hidden fantasies by coming to lunch in costume. On Friday (Nov. 1) at the Twisp Valley Grange at 7 p.m., the adults-only Halloween Costume Party will be hosted to benefit the Open Roads Coalition.