October is that moment in the Great Round when the harvest is finishing up and much of what remains is dropping seed and leaf, preparing for the dark turn ahead. The Fall is in full display and at its finest. It is my favorite month. Halloween, that eve when traditionally the veil between the worlds is most thin and we can feel the presence of the ancestors, will come to our home. Though I was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition and my wife in the Episcopal, neither of us have found them very satisfying in addressing our interests, needs, and concerns. We have over the years created a variety of rituals in our family to bring a sense of the religious to our lives.
Halloween is a “cross quarter” day, midway between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice. In astrological thinking, the midpoint of any phase of a cycle discloses the meaning of that cycle, in this case, the necessary dying of individual life to the larger Life. On Halloween, we always prepare a dinner for the dead, those family members and friends who have preceded us back to the source. We set a place at the head of the table to honor those who cannot be physically present. There is red wine for the adults and grape juice for the kids, the legacy of a grape season, the fruit of death. Glass and plate filled for the deceased. We do some readings and poetry on themes of dying and autumn. We tell stories about the lives of our honored guests and play appropriate music. It is one way in which we try to deepen our lives by recalling those upon whose failures, accomplishments, and shoulders we stand offering homage.
Halloween affords me the opportunity to reflect upon death, especially my own. For many years I have had the fantasy of when I’m old and gray of going up on a hill overlooking a pastoral setting on a beautiful October day and just sitting under a tree and expiring. This I have come to believe is an imaginal place, my psychological dying space. It brings great comfort. The image, of course, is death as a completion of life rather than death as an interruption as it is so often experienced. How many of us would wish for an easy death, not too much pain, disability, or lingering but the final punctuation sweetly ending our life’s sentence.
Personally, I’m saddened at the prospect of leaving this life and find it extremely disheartening. It’s very difficult for me to let go of family, friends, animals, sunny days, storms, snowfall, and fog. I have no wish to fight death’s appearance or pray that it never occurs. I recognize its necessity. It’s just that it’s so final. When my turn is finished I need to give up my seat to another who is just getting on this wild ride and hope that they have as rich and meaningful an experience as I have had.
I am put off by talk of an afterlife, I find it terribly distracting from this life. There is so much occurring here that I don’t want to miss any of it through inattention. If there is no afterlife for all beings that have died, then I certainly wish none for myself. How am I more valuable than the eagle, worm or possum? These creatures are filled with the same life that pulses through my being.
My comfort surrounding death is in believing that I return to the generous womb of the earth which first conspired with my parents to bring me here. As Alan Watts once said, “we do not come into the world but out of it.” I trust that I am able to go graciously back to the source and contribute to the wellbeing of those who follow.
Perhaps my favorite thoughts on death come from Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself,” and I hope that they will be read upon the occasion of my demise.
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
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