Hitchhiking in the Land of the Dead

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, compaƱero.

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