Talking with the Dead

I like talking to dead people.

The trouble is, in today’s world the dead aren’t around much. It’s hard to find them.

This is why I visit cemeteries. I enjoy visiting cemeteries because I feel like I need to converse with the dead. I find it an important part of my spiritual life. The dead tell you things the living do not.

My favorites cemeteries are the Cities of the Dead I saw in Uruguay and Argentina. I got to visit them a few years ago on an ACU-sponsored trip. In South America, for those who can afford it, the dead are put in “houses” along streets. Over time the houses accumulate and what is produced is a whole above-ground city with street after street of houses for the dead.

These cemeteries were great places to find the dead. But in modern America it is harder and harder to find the dead.

Why is this? Thanatologists say that the modern era is characterized by “the pornography of death.” That is, the subject of death is considered to be morbid and inappropriate talk for polite company. Death is risqué and not for public viewing.

But it wasn’t always this way. We used to live with the dead. We were born in our homes and we died in our homes. Our dead bodies were viewed in the parlor of the home. The wake was in the home. We were buried next to the church or on the homestead property, in a family cemetery. And our cemeteries were next to our church, a building which also functioned as our school and the town hall. In those days, children played among the dead, church assembled with the dead, and the body politic deliberated with the dead.

But eventually the funeral industry took over. We began to die in hospitals. Our bodies were not taken home but to the “funeral home.” Cemeteries began to be displaced from the center of spiritual and public life, planted not at the center but on the edges of town. Tombstones were replaced with markers level with the ground so you could drive by and not know, not see, that the dead were close. Eventually, homemaker magazines noted that the parlor was no longer being occupied by the dead. So they reclaimed it from the dead by calling it the “living room.”

And so the dead were finally forced out of our homes, out of our lives.

And it began to be harder and harder and harder to find and talk to the dead.

But there has remained one lone failure in the communal hushing of the dead. There remains one exception to the hegemony of the living.

For there remains one public ceremony, one night a year, where the dead can walk the night and ring your doorbell.

Tonight I get to talk to the dead. And I look forward to it every year.

To invite the dead I'll decorate my frontyard to look like a graveyard, complete with tombstones that say RIP. This will make the dead feel comfortable to approach. And I'll decorate with caskets, not coffins. Modern coffins, during this era of the pornography of death, look like rounded, spaceage, capsules. Coffins don't conform to the contours of the body, thus hiding, euphemizing, its contents. The dead prefer caskets, those elongated hexagons. Narrow at the top, wide at the shoulders, and tapering down toward the feet. Caskets take the shape of bodies. They know what they contain. So, only caskets, no coffins, for me and the dead.

Ready now, I'll welcome the parade of the dead to my door.

And the dead will come to my door as ghosts, spirits, and skeletons.

I’ll welcome the mythic dead, those vampires and zombies and mummies.

I’ll welcome the newly, gory dead with their blood and gore and detached limbs and misplaced eyeballs.

And I’ll welcome Death himself coming in the shape of movie murderers, those Hollywood incarnations of the Grim Reaper, the cold killer who cannot be escaped in slasher movies...or in life.

The dead will walk tonight. And it’s the only time we get to see them in modern America.

Which is why I consider tonight to be one of the most spiritual nights of the year.

Happy Halloween.

--ACU Honor's Chapel, All Hallows Eve, 2007

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6 thoughts on “Talking with the Dead”

  1. It was funny to me to come to your blog tonight and see the title "Talking with the Dead" as I JUST got home from a small gathering up at my place of employment where 5 of us gathered to try to contact our friend and coworker who was murdered just over 4 month ago. Our means of communication -- the Ouija board! =)

    Good times, good times!

  2. Hi Kim,
    Two books you should read:

    Spook by Mary Roach

    Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death by Deborah Blum.

    Both are great.

  3. Richard,
    Did the dead actually come visit you tonight, or were your invitingly ghoulish decorations all for naught? Now that churches are doing their sanitized "Harvest Festivals" (no frightening costumes, please), the neighborhoods seem to be empty on Halloween night. Ours was, anyway.
    - Jon Camp

  4. We use to walk around graveyards in Europe.  We drank in the one across the street from the college. I find them very peaceful.  Your going to end up there eventually with a little luck unless your a John Doe or vagrant someplace.  (I don't think they even bother trying to find out who you are sometimes these days when traveling... you just disappear)  I wonder sometimes how long they actually miss you.  I don't think there is one significant person in my life simply because I never married and my extended family is so distant. Once I thought I was dead.  I am a middle child; 5 siblings. My brother divorced and remarried a young woman...  I see Dad few months out of the year.

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