“The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished; never again will they have any share in all that happens under the sun. Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5-9)
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In February of this year my grandfather died at 77 years old. He was stubborn, sarcastic, and a short-fuse of a man. He smoked and was a farmer. He was a good man and was terribly rough around the edges. He lived a life similar to the many other lives around him, and just like them, the extent of his influence over those still living cannot be measured. Before he died my grandfather requested I do his funeral. It was an honor, and it was very difficult.
I was acquainted with death at a young age. The amount of funerals I attended as a child outnumbered weddings, friend’s birthdays, or any other non-annual celebration. Seeing my great-grandfather in his casket is one of my earliest memories. Burying a dead bird my friend and I found before I was old enough to go to school is still vivid in my mind. Losing pets was a reality that many children experience too. I knew at a young age that things die.
Death comes quick, and death comes slow, but it always comes and we are always surprised by its sting and its hurt. We feel betrayed by life and we feel left behind or even worse we lament, terribly, that time was not better spent with the deceased. Death is a powerful motivator and it has held a sacred spot in the collective human psyche and in human memory. We fear Death and we fear the dead, but we also honor and consecrate that terrifying reality.
Halloween, in many of its forms and historical iterations, is a celebration of Death. The deceased lie at the center of Halloween’s continued cultural march towards change. Death shows itself in the ever prevalent Jack o’ Lanterns and ghosts. Halloween is about Death and dying. It gives us a way to look at our mortality and laugh and make a gaudy celebration out of it. Death reaches back into time and space, back into our primordial history and ties our past to our present and our future. Death is as much a part of the human experience as Life.
And here lies the crux of accepting Death. As a Christian and a pastor I often speak on the “defeat of Sin and Death”. I must here make the distinction between spiritual, or eternal, Death and the primal or ancient concept of Death and dying Halloween beautifully holds as the central gem of its skeletal crown.
I often get weird looks or comments when fellow Christians discover my love of Halloween. They don’t understand how to reconcile a Christian walk with the macabre expression and love for Halloween. To many, Death is the enemy. Certainly, the Death described in scripture is the spiritual separation of the eternal aspect of man, of the soul, and the eternal creative and sustaining force that is God. “When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?“ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
(1 Corinthians 15:54-57)
No, rather, a Christian should greet physical Death as a friend. That doesn’t change how scary physical death and dying can be, as attested by the Psalmist “My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen on me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me.” (Psalm 55:4-5) The fear of Death has always been the great motivator for men and women to do terrible, evil things. Much like the old adage (a corruption of the biblical viewpoint) “Money is the root of all evil”, the idea that focusing on Death and dying is morbid, evil, or even demonic is a great error. It is not the inevitable Death of a person that drives them to Sin, but rather the fear of it, as much as the love of money causes humanity to wreak horrors on their neighbors.
And even for those irreligious, non-religious or otherwise non-Christian lovers of Halloween, accepting their doom should become a beautiful and freeing thing. My hope, of course, is that it be coupled with a relationship with the one who frees you from eternal Death (the bad kind!).
My grandfather accepted his death to cancer. He also sought after God, and found the Redeemer in his last days. It seemed to comfort him, from all outside appearances. I knew in my heart that he had accepted his Death, but he had accepted so much more as well.
This blog entry is the first in a few focused on Halloween and its connection to Death. I hope it guides many to a different view on dying, and a different view on my beloved holiday.