And if I die today I’ll be the happy phantom
And I’ll go chassin’ the nuns out in the yard
And I’ll run naked through the streets without my mask on
And I will never need umbrellas in the rain…
– Tori Amos – Happy Phantom –
Today, 2 November, is known as All Souls Day or if you prefer the more macabre name, Day of the Dead. It is primarily celebrated by the Mexicans, as part of their Festival of the Dead, during which All Hallows’ Eve, All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day are collectively observed as “Los Dias de los Muertos“.
Los Dias de los Muertos is an integral part of the Mexican national identity through which they celebrate death as an inevitable part of life.
On All Souls Day, it is believed that the souls of the dead return for a meal with their families and loved-ones. Candles in the window of their family home guide the souls back to their family, and an extra place is set at the dinner table for their visit. Children run through the streets of the villages and ask for food to be offered symbolically to those who have passed away.
The Festival of the Dead is specifically joyous and ritualistic. It’s a time for festivity and dancing; people make sugar skulls to honour those who have died as the skull symbolizes death and rebirth.
Whilst this playful familiarity and proximity to death may be unusual in contemporary modern society, perhaps its quirkiness holds a lesson for everyone else not celebrating the passing of souls.
Which begs me to ask: How do we treat our dead?
Learning how to cope with our mortality has always been a central anxiety in our human existence. Much as we mull over it, death is a reality we sooner or later will have to face. The difficulty lies in how we deal with the fact that death, inevitably, will harvest each and every one of us from this life.
Most people I know prefer to avoid this conversation and almost childishly pretend that it will never happen to them. It’s more or less a ‘head in the sand’ scenario with these folks.
My darling grandmother was in such blindsided denial when my grandfather fell ill, that she promptly ordered him to tend to her rose garden, days before he passed away from a long cancer sickbed.
Years after his funeral, she still asked for him and insisted that we find him and bring him home. At wits-end, we encouraged her to visit his grave, but she maintained that he wasn’t buried there and that he had simply left her. The reality of his death never came into the equation.
Perhaps her grieving process would’ve been easier and less torturous if she was raised in a culture where death is embraced as part of the cycle of life.
The way our family deals with death, is not to talk about it. Once the funeral is over, the tears must stop and the memories of the deceased are packed away because in most cases ‘it hurts too much to be reminded of them’…
The denial of death and it’s impact on those left behind, is not unique to only our family. In fact, death makes everyone uncomfortable, emotional, insecure and people quickly think that you’re disrespectful or morbid if you raise the topic. Cracking a joke about it is almost a taboo.
So, I’m thinking to myself: Is this how I want the memory of me to be treated once you’ve crossed to the other side?
Arguably, not everyone who has died leaves pleasant memories behind and it’s sometimes unpleasant to talk about a dead person that have done us wrong. But talking is necessary (even therapeutic) and it brings one closer to that ever-illusive thing called ‘closure’. Perhaps even leading to forgiveness and the end of anger or disappointment.
As a young boy, after losing my mother, I was told that visiting her grave won’t be allowed simply because it was such a sad place to go to… This was very difficult for me to understand apart from the challenge of dealing with her death. At least once a week, I asked if we could please go put flowers on her grave. As a 9 year old, this, I was denied.
Consequently, as soon as I got my own drivers licence, I visited my mother’s grave at least once a month, where I spent hours talking to her, crying and working through my loss… my much-needed grieving process started 12 years after her death!
Looking back now, I know that even as a child I needed to mourn her death and celebrate her beauty and love by visiting her grave… even if it was done with the simple gesture of putting flowers on a cold gravestone for no one else to see… saying goodbye over-and-over again, until it became easier to leave, without tears or any pain but with the knowing comfort that she is, somehow, still around me.
I now find a certain peacefulness when I walk through cemeteries… and I visit them often. I love reading the inscriptions on the headstones and to watch mourners and loved-ones dropping by at the resting places of people they cherished…
One of my most favourite spots in the world is the cemetery, Pierre La Chaise, in Paris. This 17th century graveyard carries the corpses of many great and notorious men and women that passed through history, Maria Callas, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison and Sarah Bernhardt, to mention a few of its most recent burials.
As far as I know, the graves of Pierre La Chaise have never gone without fresh flowers. On any given day of the week, you will find Parisians huddling at the foot ends of graves, rearranging tulips, lilies and roses… peaceful and quiet… This is a sight that will make anyone smile, because as we know the French have their very own understanding of death’s place in our lives. Hence the French metaphor for an orgasm, ‘La petite mort’ — little death…
Much as we want to, we cannot deny death its existence and my answer to ‘Till Death Do Us Part’ is, ‘But It Never Will’… the memories, good and bad, the love and the impact of their lives, will stay with us until it’s time for us to go too. Ultimately, everyone leaves a legacy…
So, for whom have you set an extra place at your dinner table tonight?
Images by Francois Lubbe
Text: FR Lubbe,