Sunday, 30 October 2016

Halloween, and rattling those bones....


Here's a nice little question for Halloween. What do you think happens to us after we die? Oblivion? A reunion with friends? Fluffy clouds, harps and angel wings? Possibly starting all over again, somewhere else? Your answer (if you have one) could affect the way you approach Halloween.

The festival's changed a lot since I was a kid. Yes, I remember bobbing for apples, but the pumpkin-and-dressing-up business only drifted over here from the USA when I was a teenager. (Blame Stephen Spielberg's 1982 film ET. Lots of British children saw the trick-or-treating going on there and said, 'I want some of that.' Thanks, Stephen. Kindly trip over your Oscar.) But the skeletons and gravestones and Things That Go Bump in the Night are all playing with our fears of the grave, the supernatural and other things we can't control. And that brings us back to the big question that we don't like to talk about. What happens to us after we die?
Whatever we believe (or have only half-thought out), it all tends to unravel and present itself at the funeral of a loved one. Funerals are necessarily troubling occasions, and several friends of mine get to lead them frequently as Christian ministers (I don't yet, incidentally.) My friends often remark on the differences in tone as different families come to say Goodbye. Some maintain the stiff upper lip, holding everything back because letting it out would be letting yourself down. Others weep openly. There can be a sense of celebration for a life well lived, shock, painful loss, dark humour, or barely subdued anger. It's a disaster. It's a triumph. Funeral celebrants see it all.

Sometimes people talk more freely, if things loosen up at the Wake afterwards. Phrases like 'He had a good innings' treat Life as a turn at the cricketing crease. 'She's gone to a better place', contains a sense of escape, possibly from painful illness. 'He'd be laughing if he saw us now!' hopes that someone's joyful personality lives on. But for some, the whole business of talking about death or bereavement is a rude intrusion on daily life. Don't talk about it. Don't be insensitive.

Other cultures do it differently, especially the Latin Americans with their magnificent Day of the Dead. It's a version of All Hallows’ Eve (Hallowe’en), a great annual festival where families visit cemeteries to honour and connect with the dead, sometimes having picnics by the graves of loved ones. There’s music and dancing in fancy dress, and a whole world of dark humour where schoolchildren are given all sorts of bizarre treats (sugar skulls and more) that laugh at mortality and celebrate life in all its fullness.

It's not in the same league, but the Church of England does run special 'All Hallows Eve' services for those who have lost a loved one. Many who attend, say that the symbolism and the words do provide a genuine comfort. Jesus’ words to his disciples about going to ‘prepare a place for them in my Father’s House’ still carry a great weight for many, whether they’re familiar with Church or not.

So if in you’re in that situation now, or worrying about it- remember you’re not alone. Find someone to talk to, find a safe place to rage or cry or shout or be quiet. Expect to be taken unawares by a song, a film, or the chance words of a conversation. Tell your friends it’s OK for them to talk about it, too. (Your local church network might even offer something helpful.) But I think we should be talking about these things much more. Life is definitely for living- and Halloween can be a fun way of waving two fingers at the Grim Reaper. But I think we ought to have more of a clue about what to do or say, when the Inevitable Sooner or Later comes knocking at our door- and that probably begins by daring to talk about it.

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Any requests of subjects for future posts in 2016? No idea too stupid for consideration. And yes, I know I am a bad writer, so don't bother saying that unless you can write something better. But maybe there's a topic buzzing around in your head that you'd like to see covered... because I've got a keyboard here, it's loaded with letters, and I ain't afraid to use it.