While American memorials of the dead usually end with the funeral, many cultures around the world have an annual festival recognizing kith and kin who have passed before – like the Japanese Bon, the Korean Chuseok, or the Mexican Dia de los Muertos. Though there are limited instances of this practice in the U.S. (like the Ozark tradition of a “dumb supper” – now sometimes called a “silent supper“), most of us don’t regularly celebrate death. So a public remembrance of the dead – especially in a party atmosphere – is a tricky thing to pull off in our culture.
In my opinion, a lot of our unease comes from the incredible diversity of American thought. Among my friends the beliefs of where we go after death include Heaven/Hell, “big dirt nap,” “to join loved ones,” reincarnation, and “I’ll worry about that when I get there” (that last one’s mine). This cultural indecision fosters stress; most of us wouldn’t choose to wink out of existence, and there’s enough collective faith in an afterlife to bolster our hopes of something more… and enough collective faith in a one-shot-deal to bolster our doubts. Like it or not, we are a part of and are influenced by the aforementioned collective. (Resistance is futile!)
Most everyone I know, however, agrees that rites of the dead are as much or more for the living than they are for those who have passed. We need some way to grieve, to remember, and to rearrange our lives without that physical presence we’d come to rely on. Personally, I have always liked the idea of an ongoing celebration that doesn’t end at the wake. I don’t think this is morbid. I think this is healthy – far healthier, for me at least, than my panicked desire to squash any and all grave thoughts.
Western cultures that do celebrate the dead tend to hold these festivals when October turns to November, around the time of the final harvest before the dead season sets in. Samhain – the Celtic new year that celebrates the harvest and communes with the beyond – is one of my favorite holidays, and one celebrated in some form or another by many branches of paganism. A Samhain tradition that I have always loved but have been too shy to put into practice is setting an official place for deceased loved ones at the feast. Well, this year GG and I have agreed to wear our faith proudly, and so at Halloween* 2010 we will include a place of honor for the dead at our table.
We haven’t figured out the details yet, but we know the chair will be decorated, and there will be a time that friends can bring remembrances to place on it. Some cultures send messages, and I envision a candle or cauldron with a small flame to burn notes, sending them on their way to the hereafter. This will all be done before the party officially starts so that anyone who is uncomfortable participating can choose not to.
Will anybody come to this part of our celebration? I don’t know. Maybe I am the only one who feels this need to “touch base” every so often. But we will have it open for those who wish to come by, and we will work to make our chair a joyful part of our festivities.
What are your beliefs about the afterlife? Would you participate in a chair ritual? Why or why not?