"I am but dust and ashes."

I hope you've enjoyed a week of Halloween-themed posts. Death, monsters, ghosts, vampires. It's been quite a week.

I started the week with some thoughts about how Halloween allows us to collectively process our fears about death. I think this is particularly important for children.

The picture here is Aidan, age 10, dressed in his Halloween costume for this year. He's going as the Grim Reaper. I'm not too keen on the costume. It's kind of freaking me out. But he's excited about it.

Interestingly, Aidan is the child of mine that has the most death anxiety. It hits some kids particularly hard. Many of you parents can tell stories of the day your child first "got" what death was all about. You're tucking your kid in at night and she asks, "Mommy, are you going to die one day?" What can you say? You can't say no and you don't want to say yes.

This is a pretty predictable developmental milestone. The moment in our cognitive development when our powers of abstraction get to the point where the concept of death finally comes into view. It's scary and unsettling. Most kids get over the realization fairly quickly. A host of psychological, cultural, and religious defense mechanisms quickly swing into action to repress the onset of death anxiety. But for some children the process is prolonged and difficult and often incomplete. The anxiety leaks into adulthood.

I think Aidan might be like this. In this, he'd be a lot like me. So while his Halloween costume freaks me out, I get it. He's going to become Death this Halloween. And in doing so he'll externalize his fear and get some mastery over it.

Again, this is one of the functions of Halloween. Even for adults. Halloween is a collective form of memento mori. It reminds me of the old Hassidic saying:

Everyone must carry in their pockets two pieces of paper which we are to read from time to time as the need requires:

In the one pocket it shall read, “For my sake were the heavens and the earth created,”

and in the other pocket, “I am but dust and ashes.”
Halloween is a collective moment when we remember that we are "but dust and ashes." And, as the biblical witness suggests, this realization is not morbid but is, in fact, a healthy aspect of spirituality and faith.

In light of this, here is my final Halloween week meditation. It is a chapel talk I gave a few years ago on Halloween. It is a meditation on the spiritual value of Halloween as memento mori:
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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7 thoughts on “"I am but dust and ashes."”

  1. Richard, I really enjoyed your series this week. Your posts had such a terrific spirit about them. I feel even more invited to be deeply grounded in my present life...

  2. Thanks Mike. My fear with posts like this is that I'll come off as morbid. But if we understand death rightly, in my opinion, it really is a life-affirming way to see the world. The sun is up. We have today.

    Time to live.

  3. Richard, I'm a BIG fan of Ernest Becker's thinking, and hid book Denial of Death- as are you? Didn't I see that somewhere?

    My spin is that death anxiety a la Becker, leads us into "idolatry", that is, some means to live our lives that ultimately is insufficient to lead us into our full and authentic human-ness......

  4. Hi Mike,
    Yes, I'm a huge Becker fan. Just about everything I do, intellectually, take some cue from The Denial of Death.

  5. As a Celtic Catholic (so different in many ways from Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, but with remarkable similar theology around some matters, since it's all just the same ancient stuff we all believe) I frequently get into conversations with Protestants about our relationships with the saints, to use our terminology for some but not all departed Christians ("dead saints" as one friend insists on calling them). Sometimes the conversations are really about theology, and there certainly are differences, but sometimes they seem actually to mask a great discomfort with the subject of death itself. Our prayers to the saints, prayers for the dead, our concept of "thin places," seem to make some people just plain squeemish.

    We, of course, are modern Americans, and are subject to all the same silliness as everyone else. But the discomfort with death seems so utterly out of place with our theology and traditional practices.

    I am reminded of the "raise the dead" scene from the Addams Family movie (#1). Hilarious! And as an analogy, it seems to fit how we believe we ought to be with the dead.

    [I was going to make some profound point, but I seem to have forgotten what it was. That's why I don't normally comment on blogs.]

  6. Fairly close to me, here in rural Washington state, there are two family cemeteries that I know of. I frankly feel a small twinge of something akin to jealousy when I drive past them. (One of the cemeteries gets a relatively large volume of visitors, considering it is in the back of beyond on the fringe of nowhere, since it "houses" a local man of near mythic proportions-- mass murderer? Or did he just want to be left alone and got tormented by the law? No one will really ever know.)

  7. Richard,

    Enjoyed your post (all of them), but I think it's better to remove your son's full name (if it's real).

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