Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living. – Arthur C. Clarke, 2001
As I wrote yesterday, last night would have been a fine one for trick-or-treating, were most children still allowed to roam unsupervised as we did; unfortunately, our decaying society is far too obsessed with “safety” to let the kids be kids. It’s a peculiar paradox: the Child Cultists enshrine an idealized, romanticized view of childhood “innocence” to the point of trying to force it upon young adults who have long since grown out of it, yet are so frightened of the imaginary haunts their timid souls see in every shadow that they cheat actual children of the joys of childhood.
That self-defeating retreat from the world is especially poignant today, the one our ancestors set aside to remind themselves of the omnipresence and inescapability of death. As I pointed out in last year’s Halloween column, every last one of us will join the departed majority in the briefest of moments (cosmically speaking); fear of death is therefore futile because death is the one inescapable experience of material existence. You will die, and so will I, and there is absolutely nothing any of us can do about it…yet vast numbers are so obsessed with this simple and indisputable fact that they waste much of their time on Earth in a struggle they absolutely cannot win. In a pathetic attempt to stretch their allotted quantity of days just a little further, many are willing to dramatically reduce the quality of the whole. And while it’s certainly their right to use their own lives this way, it is not their right to inflict upon their children a lifetime of paralyzing dread of every activity which might conceivably end in the grave just a little bit sooner than hiding indoors would, no matter how remote the possibility of its occurrence. Such an existence is not living, but vegetation.
“In the midst of life we are in death,” reads the familiar text from the Book of Common Prayer; people used to understand that, and though individual responses to it ranged from the hedonistic to the morbidly religious, practically nobody was in denial about it until a couple of decades ago. What happened? How did we go from understanding this to ignoring it like small children with our hands over our ears shouting, “I CAN’T HEAR YOU BLAHBLAHBLAH”? I think there are several causes, the most prominent of which is Western culture’s increasing urbanization; when one lives on a farm one sees death almost every day, but it’s possible for an urban office worker to go months without seeing any identifiable carcass larger than that of a cockroach. Even most of the meat eaten by modern urbanites doesn’t really look like part of a dead animal; the one exception, chicken, is increasingly encountered in the form of nuggets, chunks or “boneless, skinless breast portions”. Another cause is the fact that our society is a lot less violent than it used to be; people live longer and far fewer are killed by direct action of man or beast than in centuries past. And while that’s a good thing it has a bad side effect: the less familiar a phenomenon, the more likely people are to view it with irrational fear.
Neither of these social changes is likely to be reversed anytime soon (and I hope the second is never reversed), but there is a third cause, no less important than the other two, which we could easily undo if we really wanted to. And that is the disappearance of cultural rituals designed to remind us of exactly what I’ve discussed here. Every culture has rites, celebrations and observances to honor the dead; in Mexico, for example, today is El Dia de los Muertos, from which this column takes its name. But while the Mexicans and many other peoples have continued these traditions to the present day, most people of European descent (including Americans and Australians) have tamed and neutered All Hallows Day until it’s nothing more than another excuse for overindulgence. And though we once understood that an annual dose of controlled fear and mild chaos helped children to cope with the existence of Mortem Imperator Mundi in much the same way vaccines protect them from disease, we have forgotten the former (and many of us the latter as well). In past times, The Day of the Dead was just a formal observance of what most people already recognized, a ceremonial declaration of the omnipresence of death. But now that the more mundane and routine encounters with the Grim Reaper are so much less common for the average Westerner than they were for his grandfather, we need the ritual – in all of its morbid glory – more than ever.