Before Halloween became commercialized, sold to adults to celebrate with sexy costume parties spiked with horror movies, long before Halloween became a lighthearted opportunity for children—their faces painted and ghostly sheets worn—to gorge on candies… even before it acquired its Christian overlay, Halloween was a pagan, probably Celtic, festival. The darkening days of autumn was thought to be a time of agitated spirits, when the souls of the dead wandered the earth on their way to the other side. Rituals were developed to protect humans from these spirits; they lit bonfires, and wore masks. Gifts of food and drink were left out to appease the wandering spirits—which might be the origin of today’s trick-or-treating.
Psychologically speaking, Halloween is all about death. With the days growing shorter and the nights longer, there is more to fear in the dark, including the ultimate darkness. Death is the hardest fact we know; inevitable, universal, and incomprehensible. Death challenges the meaning of every bit of our life, and/or provides it with meaning.
We in the West deal with the terrifying, enormous and mysterious fact of death… Not at all. Our defenses consist mostly of avoidance and denial. They are not very satisfying or enlightening defenses.
Enter the Death Café. You read it right. There is a growing movement of folks getting together for coffee, tea and cake and a safe place to talk about issues related to death. Sometimes, an attendee has told me, people come because they have lost loved ones and they raise issues of grief. Others want to talk about how to have a “good death,” or maintain some control over what happens to them at the end of their lives. Grief counselors, hospice workers and other with professional interests come, too. According to their website, there are death cafes all around Europe, South America, and North America. Perhaps even in your community.
It’s an odd name, “death café”; one word denotes casual familiarity and sociability, the other quite the opposite. But it seems to be working. In a time of technological health care that often prolongs pain and suffering, and drains resources, and in a time where fewer people are supported and guided by robust communal death rituals, it seems a healthy move to begin to open conversations about death in our time.