Our catharsis of Halloween is thin this year. Our distraction of making things scary to control and laugh about what scares us seems to be cold comfort. We envelope ourselves in costume, transforming ourselves into someone, something else to embody… what? Halloween is an annual ritual about safety.
We ward off fear and suffering by donning the images of fear of suffering. We make fear and suffering manageable. We make it our own. Our costumes are our mirrors. We laugh cheerfully at ourselves and each other. We gather in community and give each other candy and compliment our creativity. We wear masks.
In our eager performance to embody the dead, we have become ignorant of the dead. Our costumes are parodies of unspecific, mass-produced undead creatures, their human features erased by violence, decay, and time. The dead do not have distinct identities, unless they are characters in our popular culture. We become anonymous. We do not dress up as our dead loved ones. We do not dress up as who we have lost. To do so would be understood as distasteful. Don’t make it so real. Halloween is a time for fun.
On Halloween last year in my brownstone Brooklyn neighborhood, Christ Church Cobble Hill Episcopal Church made a little shrine in their churchyard for trick-or-treaters to come and light a candle for the dead. Many people came. Many people shed tears. They wrote down the names of those they had lost, of those they had remembered. They thanked the priest for creating this space for them, for mourning, for remembering. For a small amount of time in a small amount of space, Halloween returned to what this day, this night is about: our dead.
Over time, we have willfully forgotten, we have successfully detached ourselves from the more sober, somber roots of Halloween: Samhain is treated as an esoteric novelty. All Saints’ Day is a spot on a liturgical calendar – if you even know what that is. Día de Muertos is in that Pixar film, Coco. We’ve become ignorant. We avoid the unfamiliar. Our mortality has become distant to us until death is at our door, knocking in its all too familiar, all too human way.
Blame capitalism. Blame evangelicalism. Blame secularism. Blame whomever you’d like. But death is here and death is coming. It always has. We’ve tried to explain it since telling each other creation stories and our answers are as insufficient as essential are our questions. And we are better served acknowledging our shared inevitability and allowing ourselves and each other mourn.
Now, we are living in the Days of the Dead. There is no foreseeable end. There is no eschaton, no End Time™, because we live in an eternal present. We live in the first year of the plague, with thousands dead and dying. We see the faces and we hear the names of our Black neighbors being killed. We see evil and hate of white supremacy arising from our government and our fellow American. Death, illness, suffering, and evil surround us. There is nowhere to hide. Halloween cannot hide us. These horrors have no mask.
Christianity points to eternal life, which is a hopeful thing. But in the clutches of respiratory failure and gunshot wounds and chokeholds, eternal life isn’t usually the main concern to a loved one or to a physician or nurse. It’s the loss of life, and sorrow, and justice – or lack thereof. And if we don’t say their names, if we don’t protect the vulnerable, if we don’t stand up against unkindness and evil, then what is the Gospel?
The narcissistic conceit of white evangelicalism is the selfishness of salvation and the “free will” that provides it and justifies all subsequent action. There can be no communal day of remembrance for all in evangelicalism. It is too selfish for that. There can be no All Saints Day, because white evangelicalism hoards sainthood for itself. This is the horror of this time, the selfishness and turning inward that is real sin.
On this weekend, during this season of autumn when all things fall and decay before the stillness of winter returns, we must gather together alone for all health in our distanced ways to remember, to mourn, to lament, and to console. As human beings, as mortals, as people who wonder or doubt if God is real or faithful or incarnate or possible or impossible, we can gather together – somehow – to remember our dead. We can remember that the dead are never dead, that the dead are never gone. That the dead haunt us and visit us and form us. They appear when we least expect it and they are gone when we need them most.
Alone, we gather. We gather like fallen leaves our memories and we share them – if only to ourselves. We are falling. The plague races through the world afresh. We cannot be with our dying like before. But our dead will always be with us. We hope our God will be with us, with our loved ones. This is the terror and reassurance of All Hallow’s Eve, when the dead rattle our certainties and expectations. This is the terror and reassurance of All Saints Day, when the dead rattle our certainties and expectations. We tremble and mourn. This is what it means to encounter the holy, the unknowable known.