Halloween: The Significance of Remembering the Dead

The Holiday that we know and love as Halloween is about more than pumpkins and scary costumes. In fact, it has a profound significance which calls for reflection. Halloween is celebrated on the eve of the Western Christian Feast of All Hallows Day and is a time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including the faithful, martyrs and saints. The idea behind all the scary costumes and makeup is to use humor and scorn to confront the overwhelming forces of death.

How it began


Halloween is thought to have evolved from Celtic harvest festivals (hence the pumpkins) and is also linked to the pagan Gaelic “Samhein”, which signaled the end of the harvest season and the coming of winter. It’s possible that this original recognition of the coming of the “darker season” later symbolized the transition from life to death. It was believed that during this in-between time, spirits from other planes could more easily cross into ours. The spirits of the dead were also believed to visit their previous homes, where dinner places would be set for them. This ancient belief that the dead would return home for one night a year has resonance in many cultures around the world, as seen in the Mexican day of the dead or Dia De Muertos.


While many people simply focus on the secular aspects of this holiday (because dressing up and eating candy is just so much fun), there’s important personal and social significance in the practice of remembering the dead. Remembering the dead not only helps us locate our place in the bigger scheme of things, it calls to mind our own mortality.


Remembering the dead


Remembering family members and greater lineages from whence we come reminds us that we are an intricate part of a bigger picture. We’re not isolated individuals in the present; rather we are deeply enmeshed in human history. Remembering where we come from makes the interconnection of human life visceral and personal. With this in mind, it becomes more difficult to be as rabidly individualistic as our current culture would prefer.


As a people, we seem to be in denial of death. Our excessive materialist goals suggest that we think we’re going to live forever. Why else would we need so much stuff? This simply wouldn’t make sense if we realized that we are in fact going to die. Yes, you too. Everything, everyone, everywhere, ends.


Remembering the dead reminds us that the present is all that’s real.  It reminds us that the people we love are the most important part of our lives. Death makes us want to do some good, maybe practice a little more compassion, leaving this world better off than we found it. That’s all that really matters in the face of the unavoidably of death. Remembering death reminds us to live.


So once you have your Halloween costume down pat, armed with your treats for the local kids, take a moment to remember that death is the source of all life and that now is the only time you have to live it.

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