Ever since Halloween, I have been thinking about the merry festival of death. I believe in holidays. A birthday is, in point of fact, not just another day. That is why I will demand to celebrate your birthday with you- and if you don’t care, I’ll make it about me. Holidays have special equipment; they halt the mechanics of life. Routine breaks and we are left in the empty space that it had filled, freed to roam.
It is well known that death is a taboo in our culture. Major industries devoted to denying it, forestalling it, and inhaling endless pictures of its opposite: youth. Blank skin, the comforting grooming of the airbrush. Mortality scares us, so we play pretend, that we will never die.
And yet, on Halloween, we fall in love with death. We dress up as the parts of ourselves that will take the longest to decompose. The ghost, the sinewy zombie body, or the skeleton underneath it. Or, the unlikely possibility that someone will find our parts and stitch us back to life: Frankenstein. And then, corpses, we eat.
Perhaps most strangely on this holiday, all the children are dead too. And it is is no longer the Victorian era, when one could look anywhere to find images of the young deceased. They are still there: Intergenerational families of graves, the miniature tombstones crouching beside their parents. Now forever small, carried off by smallpox and tuberculosis. Many left their hair to accessorize waxen figures. Parents watched their mourning dolls sleeping in tiny coffin cradles.
But now measles is just a vaccine you get, and October is a time of fantasy. Children wear their costumes glibly, plumpness beneath. They roam naughty and laughing in morbid attire. The night is a playground, and the young are un-hemmed, for once, from the daylight hours. The neighborhood bears sugar where it never has before. Cloaked in bones and bloody guts, these rovers appear to be childish previews of the end. And they eat.
When I was young, there was only one costume I was willing to wear. I remember that I hated the store bought nonsense: It wasn’t fit for a real ghost. I wanted sleek, classic: just the white bed sheet. 50 thread count for realism. This was the elemental version; probably the way kids did ‘ghost’ thousands of years ago, I assumed.
Nowadays the white bed sheet looks more to me like a shroud, the blank color of grief. It is the natural companion to the modern headstone, which is more dignified than the foam ones we used to play with, mummied hands popping out from behind them. Today’s graves melt the angles of a life history, sum them up in a glassy sheet of granite. A stone and a shroud lie still. A ghost moves. I’ve lost something.
It’s all part of the wondering. Is there a part of us that is vaporous- detachable- to which our physical body is just an appendage?
I will entertain this possibility: though our culture dreads mortality, there is something older in us that does not. I think children feel it when they put on death’s clothes and run away with the reaper. What could be a better adventure, for the solid, than to rove around nighttime with the traveling dead?