As Halloween approaches, it brings a tide of childhood memories: handmade princess costumes, the joy of free candy, the rule among my peers to hold our breath when passing a cemetery so we wouldn’t ‘catch’ death. As children, it seemed that simple not to die, and secular America hasn’t outgrown that belief. But by ignoring and hiding death, we remain helpless against our fundamental fear of it. Through my practice of mindfulness meditation I have discovered just how fearful and resistant I am to the concept of death as I develop a mindful approach to facing it.
Thanks to longer lifespans and smaller families, I, like many Americans, have not had a death in my close family in years. The last time I attended a funeral I was ten years old. Three decades after my grandmother died, the mere mention of her name makes me teary. Rarely do I have to confront human mortality, and as a result, I haven’t accepted it.
We treat death as a contagion to which the strong and successful are impervious. Witness the current mania for vampires – e.g., Twilight and The Vampire Diaries – in which the protagonists live forever. It is as though we are above death, and on Halloween we celebrate our conquest, laughing at silly dancing skeletons or telling tall tales of headless horsemen that banish mortality beyond the pale of plausibility; ghosts aren’t real, and by extension, neither is death.
Publications as diverse as Psychology Today and Huffington Post have examined that fear of death and how it hurts us. Such fears can cause anxiety disorders and prolonged mourning, such as the extended grief I have for my grandmother, and they can even prevent people from going to the doctor when they should. But there is a better way: confronting mortality head-on, in a spirit of acceptance. Halloween is a missed opportunity to do just that.
Other societies and religions have embraced death as an inevitable part of life, grappling regularly with, and thus defusing, fear. The ancient Romans made a daily practice of “memento mori,” or “remember death.” At feasts, a skeleton or skull would be present to remind revelers that their levity and good fortune were transient. This didn’t necessarily dampen a good time – it encouraged them to pack in as much fun as they could in the time they had.
Western Europe once adopted memento mori customs. Timepieces, some of which remain from the 16th-19th centuries, included design elements like images of skulls or Latin inscriptions meaning “perhaps the last hour.”
Of course, there is Dia de Los Muertos, Day of the Dead, primarily a tradition of Latin cultures and especially important in Mexico. The two-day event combines the celebrations of All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2). Families gather to remember their dead relatives with sugar skulls, Catrinas (skill dolls), marigolds and the favorite food and drink of the departed. Instead of holding their breath through the cemeteries, they will often hold feasts atop the very graves of family members who have passed on. Similar traditions exist in Asian and African cultures and although Dios de Los Muertos dates back to Aztec culture, it now incorporates symbols of Catholicism, such as the Virgin Mary and Jesus, as well.
In fact, religion is one of the few places we face death today. The impermanence of this life is easier to swallow when it comes with the promise of an afterlife, which faith traditions tend to provide. But even those who don’t believe in an afterlife can benefit from a religious approach to our transience. For instance, Catholics’ liberal display of crucifixes and art depicting martyrdom surround churchgoers (and art museum visitors) with visual reminders of our inescapable fates: if even the exceptionally virtuous and divine die, there really is no out.
There is merit in the requirement of my religion, Judaism, that mourners attend services and recite prayers for deceased relatives daily for 11 months and annually thereafter, keeping death on our minds and calendars. Buddhism and some other schools of meditation advise practitioners to meditate on the inevitability of death, even to contemplate corpses, in order to overcome the painful tension of fear.
As a Jew, I appreciate the rituals of my religion, but I have not found in them a road to accepting my own lot. Meditating mindfully on my own mortality seems to me like the most effective path, facilitating calm and promoting tranquility. That state of mind doesn’t come easily, but I believe that with practice, meditation can help one make peace with the physical limits of the human condition.
Halloween’s clownish skeletons, costumes, and piles of candy sugarcoat mortality, while the frightening ghouls and ghost stories keep it unrealistic – death is either too silly or too supernatural to worry about. Then we drop the topic for the rest of the year, as the dying are hidden in hospitals and hospices, and talk of death seems overwrought.
It would be healthier if we spent Halloween – or some other time, lest we deprive children of candy on this much-loved holiday – meditating on death with an open mind and heart, even working towards welcoming it. Meditation is a practice, not a quick fix, but it can help foster calm coexistence with the knowledge that our end approaches. An excellent book on this topic is Living in the Light of Death: On the Art of Being Truly Alive by Larry Rosenberg.
On a more practical level, once meditation has facilitated a degree of calm in the face of our own mortality, we should consider matter-of-factly how, like the ancient Romans, each of us personally can make the most of life without taking it too seriously. Because no one here gets out alive.