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on holidays and honest obituaries
The holiday season has officially begun. I like to say that once it’s Halloween, it might as well be New Year’s—that’s how fast the rest of the year goes. And good thing too because this can be a sad and stressful time of year for some people. Too many obligations, too much pressure to cook, bake, or buy things. Too many people gone that we miss. Out here: too much rain and dark, dark days.
Yet, let’s not get ahead of ourselves because Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. A loud, sweet excuse to don a disguise, eat Butterfingers and Snickers with abandon, and attend parties in order to flirt with strangers you will not recognize if you see them on the street the next day. What is not to love?
Halloween is a blast. It’s not too ceremonial or weighed down by expectations. After a certain age, no one expects you to spend it with your family (unless you want to). Well into the middle span of your lifetime, you can experience the full fantasy and indulgence of this holiday, though your choice of sugar vehicle might change over the years. I have many great memories and photos from Halloween parties past, and for the most part, unlike other holidays, I don’t dislike the American version of it.
But I do wish we could dip back a bit more into the ancient traditions where the focus of this time of year was to celebrate the souls who have departed from us. While some of us spend the day disguising ourselves, asking for free candy, or drinking/smoking any and all available potions at parties, more than a few of our fellow global citizens are honoring the lives of their ancestors and loved ones. It’s not surprising, really. We can’t stand the idea of death in America. We’re no good at death, and a lot of us aren’t that great at life either.
I’m proud of my American-bred optimism, and “Of course I can!” attitude. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But there’s a lot of hiding and disguising when we get close to subjects that can’t be easily explained or paved over. Like sex, we pretend that if we never talk about death, then it can’t possibly happen.
After spending a great deal of our lives denying that the people we love will never leave us for other worlds, we tend to canonize and glorify them when they’re gone. Don’t speak ill of the dead. Sometimes its too painful to be honest, to try and remember what someone was actually like; how they failed us as a friend, partner, or parent. But if we don’t try, on occasion, to recognize the entire composition of a person, accepting their full fragility and clumsiness, and honor their inabilities as well as their abilities, then I don’t know that we can say that we fully loved them either. Certainly, we can’t say we understood them.
I know that I have failed at this. More than once.
Several years ago, I read an article in the Guardian by Mona Chalabi about how the common obituary, soaked in its glowing accolades and euphemistic descriptions of a recently deceased person, might be masking our deep fear of how we ourselves will be reviewed upon our exit. Of course, not all obits are dishonest. Renay Mandel Corren’s obituary, written by her son, might not be the template we want going forward, but I actually felt like I knew something about her after I read it. That’s a real person! Not a comic book hero.
A friend of mine lost1 her father recently and was asked by her step-mother to write the obituary for the local paper. This step-mother had a few requests, the primary one being her insistence that there be no mention in the obituary that her late husband had been previously married. This put my friend in a bit of a bind. Not only did this request force her, during her most intense period of grief, to pretend that 20 years of her late father’s life had not happened, but also that she and her two siblings had somehow just appeared on the earth, without a mother and now without a father too.
As we enter the holiday season, many of us will be looking forward to the rituals focused on family gatherings and reunions. Many will not. If you’re the latter, I hope you can find a safe, nurturing tribe to celebrate the coming seasonal rituals with.
We know virtually nothing about death, but we do know that life is shorter than most of us would prefer. Spend it with those who make you feel like a kid on Halloween night with a full bag of candy. After you get home, take off the mask, and let people see you, runny nose and all. And when we die, let’s hope they tell all the stories about us, even the less flattering ones.
Funny, that expression: “she lost her father” — he’s not lost. He’s dead. We have trouble even saying it aloud…