This article was originally published at MoonCircles.com in November 2001.
San Diego, where I live, is a long way from New York; but every day I think about that huge, smoldering mass grave on the southern tip of Manhattan. It’s a horror even from this distance; I can only vaguely imagine what it would be like to be living there. Some believe spirits need their bodies to have a proper burial before they can be at peace, but it’s possible that’s just something that the living need in order to put death to rest. In any event that beautiful city, normally such a jewel in autumn, must be a shattered place now, a tortured place, heavy with a spirit of reluctant and sudden death.
My culture is generally ill at ease with death. We are mostly ill equipped to mourn, and when we try to do it well meaning friends jump in to get us “back on track,” to urge us to go on with our lives as quickly as possible.But what makes us think that dealing with death is not a part of going on with life? To be preoccupied with death to the exclusion of celebrating life is nonsense – but then, so is denial of death. This Full Moon, when the Sun in Scorpio representing the inevitability of death and decay dances with the Moon in Taurus, representing the abundance of life, we’re reminded again that each of these is one side of the same coin, incomplete without the other. We see the call and response of life and death in agriculture, in the lunar phases, in the seasons: Life carries a price tag of eventual death, but death is arguably just a doorway to another kind of life. That’s not always a comforting thought when it’s your loved one who has died, or when you are facing death yourself; but it does seem to be the way the world works.
America was an interesting place to be in the month immediately following the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. Even for someone like me who lives 3000 miles away and didn’t lose anyone I knew in those attacks, the assault on my sense of security felt very much like losing someone close to you: Shock, disbelief, depression, rage, disorientation, terrible loss. We huddled around our televisions, posted messages on Usenet groups, talked about the events incessantly; that’s what you do after a loss. That’s part of working through the grief. And for once, because everyone was grieving together, no one was rushing anybody through the process. For once, we all understood together exactly what everyone else was feeling.
It’s been an unusual time. Yet interestingly, given our usual discomfort with death, Halloween has been growing in popularity for years; it’s now second only to Christmas in popularity among American holidays. Its origin is sketchy – it seems to be descended from a Celtic harvest festival that honored the lord of the dead, brought to North America by the Irish. (Halloween seems to be celebrated primarily in North America, Britain, Ireland, and the Philippines.) The emphasis of our modern American celebration of Halloween is on fear, and primarily geared toward children, who wear “scary” costumes and go door to door “threatening” adults into giving them candy. It’s also the favored season for movie studios launching big budget horror films filled with gore and nasty surprises. The Halloween “season,” once a single night, now is stretched out to encompass as much time as possible in order to facilitate consumerism, so for several weeks each October, American invokes death and the supernatural with a weird incantation of innocuous fantasy, grisly horror, and candy corn. This feels, especially in light of September 11, a rather inadequate way in which to acknowledge death.
In soulful contrast, Mexicans observe Los Días de los Muertos (the Days of the Dead) on November 1 and 2 – days when those who have passed away are imagined to be allowed to return to earth to visit with their families and friends. Ceremonies and festivals honor those who have died, and bring focus to the other aspects of the life cycle: fertility and life. Los Días de los Muertos are traditionally celebrated by cleaning and decorating the cemetery, creating special flower wreaths, making calaveras (skulls made of sugar), and selling items for the ofrendas, altars made of offerings to the dead to assure continuity of life. In the Mexican tradition, those who are dead provide a connection between the living and God and the Saints.
Recently I listened to an interview with a photographer who is creating a photographic legacy of the aftermath of the World Trade Center collapse. He spends each day at Ground Zero, recording the light and textures of the effort — his ofrenda is a camera on a tripod. A friend of mine, a writer and filmmaker in New York, published on his website a marvelous essay about the week following the attacks and some remarkable footage he’d shot; his computer, his videocamera, and his website are his ofrendas.
Whether you build a traditional altar or create one through your art, this Full Moon, on the night we celebrate Halloween, is an extraordinary opportunity to acknowledge both death and the continuity of life with an ofrenda of your own. For mine, I’ll be visiting my favorite Mexican bakery for sweets, and buying fresh apples and the most beautiful marigolds (the flowers of the dead) for my mantel. I have my eye on some little calacas (skeleton dolls) to commemorate my personal loved ones on the other side — my abuelos, my padres, my hermano, my tía. I’ll light candles, build the first fire of the season in the fireplace, and play some of my very favorite music. And I’ll open up the windows and invite the Full Moon onto my altar while I dance with my loved ones, living and dead, and with the beloved dead I never knew, who dance thousands of miles away on the ofrendas of New York.
© 2001 April Elliott Kent