October 31, 2016

Hitchhiking in the Land of the Dead

Pull up a chair and sit a spell. Death's in residence on my block

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die
To cease upon the midnight with no pain....

-- Keats, Ode to a Nightingale

Once upon a time, when Europe could be had at $5 a day, I found myself hitchhiking on the freezing plains of Spain just outside of Madrid. Car after car swept past me, the winds in their wakes chilling me further. This was very disconcerting since I had with me my fail-safe ride generator, a hot hippie girlfriend (Think a good-looking Janis Joplin.) My ride generator had never failed me before but on this day she was generating zero rides even though the traffic on the road was heavy. Then I noticed two things.

First there seemed to be no trucks on the road. Second, the cars that huffed past us were filled to the gills with whole Spanish families bearing vast bouquets of flowers. And all those Spaniards looked, to the last, very grim.

After a few futile hours, we made our way -- walking -- a few kilometers down the road to a truck stop where, using my pidgin Spanish, the mystery of the ride drought was solved. It seemed that we were trying to get to Barcelona on one of the most holy days of the Spanish year -- All Saints Day, or as we have it here in America, Halloween.

The Spanish tradition on this day is for the whole family to load up the car with flowers and other offerings and haul off to the local graveyard for a visit and picnic with the dearly departed. After that many go off to a traditional performance of Spain's Faustian epic Don Juan Tenario in which the final act takes place in a cemetery. On this holy day in Spain we had almost zero chance of getting a ride anywhere other than the local graveyard. Chastened, we made our way back to Madrid by bus and set out the next day with much better luck.

What remains in my memory from watching the parade of cars on that long-lost Spanish highway is just how dour and serious the Spanish were on their Halloween. They weren't fooling around with death, but taking it at its word. They not only believed in death they also, in their prayers and rituals and their traditional play, believed that what you do in life determines how you will be treated in the afterlife. They had, at bottom, that adamantine belief that is the pearl beyond price of the Catholics. But even if you were to strip away the 2000 years of dogma, these people still had the one thing that more and more Americans lack at the core of their lives: a belief in something greater than themselves, a belief in something greater than man, greater than death.

Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Made everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It's easy to see without looking too far
That not much
Is really sacred.

-- Dylan

In my neighborhood in Seattle many don't believe in anything sacred other than, at best, Obama. Their entire belief system centers on that tin god then on themselves and their "only one life to live, live, live!." All of which makes for an empty skin sack of existential desolation that they try to fill every Halloween with the greatest of American secular concepts: fun.

"Fun" is a curiously American concept that seems to have begun its invasion of all aspects of our shared life shortly after the end of WWII. I suppose that after the Great Depression and the war, the nation felt it could use a little fun. And, as usual, that great American axiom, "If it is worth doing, it is worth overdoing," came into play. Nowhere do we see the idea that life should be "fun" pumped up into bigger balloons of pure vanity than on Halloween.

From a minor tradition of sending kids out for to pick up some free candy, Halloween has mushroomed into a major American auto-fornication festival in which we regularly -- and with increasing intensity -- celebrate the meat state of life while pretending to vaguely celebrate the spiritual part. If you've noted, as I have, the increasing lust for gruesomeness in costumes at every new Halloween, you might have reflected that dark humor has taken a back seat to darker fascinations. One new costume around this year allows you to dress us as a corpse in a body bag complete with wounds and autopsy slashes. And that's a mild one.

Added on to costumes depicting violent death, mutilation, and the corruption of the grave, we have the increasing trend to freak show street events and private parties where this week's perversion is served as bubbling punch; as a witch's brew we are only too pleased, dressed as dregs, to drink to the dregs. In Seattle, of course, freak show street events and perversion parties are pretty much the order of the day, if not the daily spectacle on many blocks. But there's something about Halloween that brings out the horror show of many inner lives like no other event. The only thing that saves us from seeing ghouls and goblins parading naked about the streets with their full-body tattoos and multiple genital piercings on display is the colder temperature, but there are clubs that specialize in that all about the city so you can see it if you wish.

It seems strange that a day for the contemplation of mortality has been turned into a carnival of corruption in this country, but perhaps not all that strange. I'd suggest that, as the country becomes more secular; as it ceases to believe in anything other than the here and now, the moment in the meat, it becomes increasingly terrified of the extinction of the self by death. It is one thing to profess a belief in the Great Nothingness, it is quite another to have to face it. The only weak weapon that can be raised up against it is its denial.

Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death touches on why this is so:

Becker argues that a basic duality in human life exists between the physical world of objects and a symbolic world of human meaning. Thus, since man has a dualistic nature consisting of a physical self and a symbolic self, man is able to transcend the dilemma of mortality through heroism, a concept involving his symbolic half. By embarking on what Becker refers to as an "immortality project" (or causa sui), in which he creates or becomes part of something which he feels will outlast him, man feels he has "become" heroic and, henceforth, part of something eternal; something that will never die, compared to his physical body that will die one day. This, in turn, gives man the feeling that his life has meaning; a purpose; significance in the grand scheme of things.

Of course, absent religion and the perception of the vertical in the universe, science and the deep belief in the Great Nothingness is a poor substitute. As Becker notes, without something larger than yourself, the "heroic project fails."

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark...

-- Eliot, Four Quartets

We aren't accustomed to failure in our ceaseless search to find a meaning in the Great Nothingness. But fail we do because the nature of the Great Nothingness that we so admire is exactly that, Nothing; death as a black hole with despair as the free-candy in your skin sack.

What the empty among us are compelled to do when confronted by death is a bit of mass-culture symbolic magic. We dress as what we fear most, and we deck our halls with symbols of death and decay. We pretend that shaking these shibboleths and feathered fetishes against the dark will protect us much as hiding under the covers kept us safe from the monster under the bed. It's a child's response to fear and it is not at all surprising that, as the worship of the Great Nothingness grows and festers among us, the ever escalating morbid gestures of Halloween do nothing to fill the Great Nothingness that roils the souls of many of our fellow citizens. It's a bit like the ceaseless urge to "keep ourselves in shape" that obsesses so many.

Alas, it will not avail us. You can drape yourself with the rubber raiments of Zombies all you want, the world will always, in time, eat your flesh down to dust. And without faith, that fate is the hard-core horror of existence as mere meat. Without faith, more and more of us find ourselves hitchhiking on the cold plains with no chance of being picked up. Without faith, the vehicles that pass us on the high road just aren't going our way.

[Republished from October 2008. New this year, the ante goes up with these hyper-realistic hacked up chunks of human meat. There really is no bottom. Is there?]


Axed Up Body @ Fright Catalog, Inc.


And this year comes word of "The fake “dismembered human” meat packages from a fake butcher called The Chop Shop were discount store Europris’ way of getting into the Halloween spirit." Norway Pulls Hands Why not? Halloween is "for the children!"

Posted by Vanderleun at October 31, 2016 2:40 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

It's been theorized that every organized human activity is in some way powered by the awareness of death. Religion, of course, is heavily influenced by the inevitability of death; few persons would dispute that. But what of the assertion that seeking corporate employment expresses the same awareness?

We are born to die. If we who believe in a second life are correct, this first stage of existence is only a preparatory trial. If we're wrong, this might be the only trip we get. Neither proposition can be verified on this side of the veil of Time. But one of them leads to civilization, sobriety, consciousness of the future, and respect for one's fellow men.

The origin of Hallowe'en, as I learned it, was as a slightly irreverent European counterweight to the All Saints Day (11/1) and All Souls Day (11/2) solemnities. Both those holy days are, of course, recognitions of the inexorability of death -- but in the Christian fashion, which exalts the lives of the truly good and exhorts us to pray for the souls of our departed loved ones. They foster an awareness of fate and duty more taxing than many persons of today can endure. Perhaps the 21st Century Bacchanal that's developed from the once-innocent Hallowe'en festivities is a counterweight for those who find November's memento mori too heavy to bear. Given how spiritually flaccid so many of us have become, there's some substance to the notion.

Posted by: Francis W. Porretto at October 22, 2008 2:17 PM

Excellent comment, Francis.


Posted by: vanderleun at October 22, 2008 2:39 PM

Chilling, Gerard.

Goosebumps all over.

Wonderful, wonderful piece.


Your comment -"If you've noted, as I have, the increasing lust for gruesomeness in costumes . . "

Yes. I've noticed. Yes, I despair for a culture that's lost its way.

I will carve a pumpkin, though. The smell of cooking pumpkin rind and the flickering of the candle through a dark evening - comforts.

Perhaps it's just the evocation of my childhood in the 50's. God. We were all so innocent.

Posted by: Cathy at October 22, 2008 3:05 PM

I think that guy was in line behind me to vote yesterday.


Posted by: Tregonsee at October 22, 2008 3:55 PM

Very good Gerard; very good Francis.

Death cannot be appeased; why worship it?

Posted by: Mikey NTH at October 22, 2008 4:20 PM

Gerard, I have told you before that you really know how to preach! I did preach something similar to this back when the gazillion-dollar federal prescription plan was being passed - what else did it exhibit but the fear of the eternal abyss, dressed up in language about "affordability?"

I am reminded often of Locke's observation that the deepest fear of human beings is not death per se, but "perpetual perishing," the disappearance utterly from both life and memory.

I also urge everyone to read, "Christ and Nothing," by David B. Hart. Excerpt:

And so, at the end of modernity, each of us who is true to the times stands facing not God, or the gods, or the Good beyond beings, but an abyss, over which presides the empty, inviolable authority of the individual will, whose impulses and decisions are their own moral index.
And that is, I think, what we find so frightening: we have made ourselves gods, but at midnight, peering into the darkness, we know that we are only humbugs beind the curtain, neither great nor powerful.

Posted by: Donald Sensing at October 22, 2008 8:09 PM

Raised Catholic, with 12 years of parochial school, by senior year in high school I considered myself an atheist. But I was never one of those particularly militant ex-Catholics.

Now, at 43, I still don't particularly believe per se, but I've increasingly come to appreciate the value of religion, Christianity in particular in spite of its flaws (or rather those of its adherents thru the centuries).

Part of that is from knowing actual history -- the Christian West is the only source (at least the one that 'took') of the notion of universal human rights. Hell, Christian patriarchy-hating hardcore feminists ow their gains to Christianity -- there's a straight line from the Catholic cult of Mary (with some admitted pagan syncretism) to the chivalric view of women, to protestant Victorians deciding that giving women the vote would better civilize society. [The jury may still be out on that one ;)]

The other part of my renewed respect for Christianity -- and the religious impulse in general -- is this: I'm a husband a father.

The materialist view of death as an absolute end does not scare me much in its own right. Rather, what I call 'the Tragedy of Sapience' is: what truly hurts is knowledge of the certain deaths someday of all those whom we love.

IMO *that* is the real heart of religion -- not creation myths or a desire for magic powers -- and those who would mock even that core desire for comfort, for the sake of those we love, are indeed twisted.

Posted by: newscaper at October 22, 2008 10:56 PM

Brother Gerard,

Beautiful. When Donald Sensing drops in to compliment you on your preaching there is not much more to say than:

Say amen everyone!

Posted by: doug at October 23, 2008 12:36 PM

"Halloween has mushroomed into a major American fornication festival..."

Why am I always the last to hear about these things, dammit??! I KNEW those kids were looking older every year, and now I understand that girl last year dressed as a Playboy Bunny who asked me if I didn't have anything special for her! Whoa -hope she come back!

I wish she hadn't called me "Gramps" though!

Posted by: sherlock at October 23, 2008 7:05 PM

I grew up in Spain and vividly remember those outings when I was a little boy. The adults were, I thought, solemn, and seemed sad. Now, ending my fith decade on this earth, I understand melancholy, which is what is left after contemplating past happiness and remembering departed loved ones. It is not a bad feeling and I don't unerstand why people avoid it. It is just the remembrance of good times.

After the picnic we kids would play hide and seek among the tombstones. Once in a while, while hiding behind a particularly solemn mausoleum we would get spooked and would come out of hiding even at the risk of being tagged. I have always thought that this is the feeling that Halloween tries to recapture with all its fake creepiness.

Thank you, Gerald, for reviving these memories in me.

Posted by: Freddy Hill at October 23, 2008 9:37 PM

Nailed Gerard,

"Without faith, more and more of us find ourselves hitchhiking on the cold plains with no chance of being picked up. Without faith, the vehicles that pass us on the high road just aren't going our way."

There is indeed a fate worse than death. It's going to ones grave not knowing why.

Jesus of Nazaeth, on His march to the grave, knew why and summed it up beautifully: "Let the dead bury the dead".

Posted by: Denny at October 3, 2009 3:10 PM

Man alone of all created beings shows a natural disgust for existence and an immense longing to exist; he despises life and fears annihilation--Tocqueville

Posted by: james wilson at October 3, 2009 8:59 PM

Profound thoughts (hardly the right word) magnificently written.

Posted by: Lance de Boyle at October 4, 2009 1:33 AM

Wonderful post! One could apply many of your points to the current morbid fare of zombies, vampires, psychokillers and gangsters Hollywood serves us for entertainment these days. Tho there are at times elegant and hmorous elements to some of the vampire stuff, wh is richer psychologically and artistically. Thanks for a better sermon than I heard Sunday...

Posted by: retriever at October 5, 2009 9:45 AM

I was having lunch with some forty-something co-workers in the cafeteria of one of the worlds largest healthcare centers when one guy looks around quizically and says, "You know, all of these prople here, in this room, someday are going to die!"

Posted by: Mike Bailor at October 5, 2009 10:54 AM

Our "betters" love to hide behind "the children" to justify their theft and depredations.

With Halloween, I can't blame it on our "betters," since it's we ourselves who've stolen this day from our children. To add insult to injury, we've also robbed them of the notion of "carefree." No more roaming the neighborhoods on their bikes (sans those dorky helmets), no more pickup games; intead, overly busy, harried, frantic adults must supervise their brats in formalized sports and other "constructive," "safe" activities. Bleah!

There's something really creepy about a society that suffocates like the Puritans of old, but without a religious subtext. Calvinistic Humanism is a barbarity that should be cast aside.

Posted by: Don Rodrigo at October 22, 2010 12:57 PM

Excellent. I used to work for Seafirst and lived in Kirkland, Washington (Seven years total).

Seattle was creepy in its worship of materialism and Mother earth. Our parish was very small. We have more Christians in one parish in Kern County California than all of the East side of Lake Washington. It is interesting how Halloween has gone over the top and now is celebrated big time by adults and teenagers. I like Halloween but I remember its Celtic and Catholic roots dating back to St. Patrick and St. Columba when they assimilated the Celtic New Year into Catholicism.

Posted by: Richard Munro at October 22, 2010 10:10 PM

Mexico also does, or did, the Day of the Dead rituals -- memorial services at the church, visits to the cemetery to clean and decorate graves and to pray over the ancestors. The best US analog I can think of is Memorial Day back in the Fifties, when there were still lots of people around who called it "Decoration Day". The Mexican version has always been darker and more morbid than either the American Memorial Day or what I understand the Spanish one to be (never having been there). I wish I had a picture of the sign coming into Aguascalientes from the south on MX45 -- a grinning skull in an elaborate Victorian hat, done in welded-bar open ironwork against a white stone wall.

(ah, here it is, not a very good photo: La Catrina de Noche. Note that this is a permanent installation, not just a Day of the Dead and/or Halloween decoration.)

In the last decade or so, American Halloween has begun infiltrating the Day of the Dead. Most of the influences have been toward the lighthearted -- candy, trick-or-treat, costumes for the kids -- which the traditionalists I knew regarded as being a Bad Thing, as it took away from the solemnity of the occasion. I haven't been to Mexico this time of year for quite some time now, so I don't know if the gruesome nihilism of the current American practice(s) has been imported as well, but I can't help wondering if at least some of the influence has gone the other way.


Posted by: Ric Locke at October 23, 2010 7:29 AM

Good Lord! How did I miss this in 2008? As usual, your ability to wordsmith is towering. It makes me feel inadequate, in a way...

Posted by: Captain Dave at October 23, 2010 8:22 AM

The holiday has pagan roots:


It's become very American, of course. And at some point it became the standard place for American "masquerade parties," and these have sort of degenerated as time has gone on.

If I had kids I think we'd celebrate all three days: Halloween and pumpkin carving (graveyard imagery being okay, but crimes and criminal imagery, not), All Saint's Day ("saints" being both legendary Christians and, in a more general sense, the community of Christians) and All Soul's Day (a remembrance of those who have departed).

Posted by: Joy McCann/Miss Attila at October 23, 2010 2:48 PM

My husband died Spring 2008 after forty years of marriage. I read this wonderful essay in October the same year,the next year and now tonight. Gerard you are wordsmith "par excellance"

Posted by: Circe at October 23, 2010 4:50 PM

"And may God deny you peace, but give you glory!"
Salamanca, In the year of grace 1912.

The last sentence of Miguel de Unamuno's, "Tragic Sense of Life," treatise on the existence of the soul. Magnificently dark, and yet sweetly joyful and compelling.

If you make me think of that fellow you're definitely sailing in the slipstream, compañero.

Posted by: tao9 at October 24, 2010 8:24 PM

A small point - to Catholics (and some other Christians), November 1st is All Saints Day - to honor all those people who have died and gone to heaven, but are not canonized. It is usually a Holy Day of obligation - we have to go to Mass. Halloween comes from All Hallows' Eve - the day before All Saints Day.

November 2 is All Souls Day - where Catholics pray for those who have died but may not be in heaven yet, because they are in Purgatory.

Posted by: Joel at October 24, 2010 8:34 PM

Nihilists have Nothing to fear.

(Repeated here as a nod to the exact train of thought I was riding elsewhere.)

Posted by: Joan of Argghh! at October 22, 2012 3:10 AM

One of the best articles I've seen written in a long time. Hits the core of our problems. Very nice. Re-post on a regular basis please ?

Posted by: DaveinMinnesota at October 22, 2012 8:21 AM

"Notwithstanding you're [sic]likely know but a handful of your neighbors"

How is this statement by you not exactly the sort of generalization you ascribe to Gerard? There's no way for you to possibly know what you aver. It is an extrapolation based on your personal projections of what you assume to be true, or hope to be true. I wonder why?

Just kidding. I don't wonder why at all. It's the same shade of green you always bring here.

Posted by: Joan of Argghh at October 23, 2012 5:01 PM

' How is this statement by you not exactly the sort of generalization you ascribe to Gerard? '

Joan. Joan. Joan. Pointing out typos is such fun isn't it?

I think any reasonable person can see the difference. But then as this is the American Digest crowd 'reasonable' doesn't really enter into it.

Always nice to see what you're up to Joan.

Posted by: at October 23, 2012 8:04 PM

I really like this essay. I'm pretty sure I know the owner of the house pictured. Seattle wasn't always so into Halloween, but we've been overrun by liberals, by way of California, for three decades. They're certain they "discovered" Seattle sometime in the mid eighties, a short time after Washington achieved statehood. They would have continued a few miles up the road to Anchorage but finally consulted a map and saw that there was an entire country between Washington and Alaska. Too bad for us.

Gerard, if you feel overrun by an excess of Halloween on QA, please join us at the Seattle Church of Christ some Sunday. We're in the old and beautiful former Christian Science church on 8th and Fulton. Never thought I'd see so lively a church on this end of the hill.

Posted by: AbigailAdams at October 23, 2012 9:14 PM

Ah, another evergreen. One sign of a good writer is that his work is not dated.
It works as well six years later as it did the day he penned it.

Thanks for the oldies Gerard.

Posted by: chasmatic at October 28, 2014 3:35 AM

Love this every time I see it! Thanks!

Posted by: Joan of Argghh! at October 28, 2014 12:03 PM

At daily Mass today in Calistoga: the Gospel in which Jesus calls Herod 'that fox' and compares Himself to a mother hen longing to gather the people of Jerusalem, 'her chicks,' under her wings. But they, we, flee. Herod and assorted thugs through the centuries wait to pick them, us, off. Thank you, Gerard, again and again.

Posted by: Patrick at October 29, 2015 12:37 PM

OurTurdStone: Any thoughts on how being a brainless troll, obsessed with a past that Mr. Van der Leun has long since repudiated, contributes anything to the discourse here?

Posted by: Skorpion at October 29, 2015 6:43 PM

He's got nothing. And he is old and failing. I just expunge him when I see him. But thanks, Skorpion, for clearing that up.

Posted by: vanderleun at October 30, 2015 12:35 PM