Friday, November 02, 2012

Remember the Dead

Cando eramos vivos,
Andabamos pol-os caminos;
E agora que somos mortos
Andabamos por entre os hortos
Tocando nas campanillas
E commendo pimentos ...*
-- Song of a troop of revenants in Manzaneda, Trives (Orense, Galicia) cited in Claude Lecouteux's  Phantom Armies of the Night

The Seven Sisters rise high in the Southern Arch reminding us that the time for donning the mask and shroud has come. The celebrations which stretch from Oct. 31st through the beginning of November, known to most as Samhain, All Hallows Eve, the Day of All Saints, Hallow’een, and in Latin countries, Dias de los Muertos, are a time for reconnecting with those of us who have passed on to the next stage of the pilgrimage, who walk the Summerlands, as the Spiritualists say, beyond the thin veil of shifting materia that gives us the illusion we are solely heirs to a body demarcated by the bounds of flesh.

Our remembrance of the customs that attend this time have been blurred by Victorians like James Frazer, whose fear and fascination with sex and death put all of our ancestral traditions on the defensive. However, the work of more recent scholars has begun to untangle the knots of understanding that have obfuscated potent alternative understandings, and provide a much healthier insight into on our relationship with the ancestral dead.

Catholic tradition holds that the Day of All Saints is a time when Mass is said for those whose incarnate life did not achieve full and faithful union with the divine, but whose actions do not merit eternal damnation. These soul exist in Purgatory, or for babies who died without being baptised left in Limbo, in the margins. While secular scholars, and some Evangelical historians, snicker at the fact that the concepts of Purgatory and Limbo are additional elements added after the canonical Bible of the orthodoxy, such scoffing only reminds us that so much has been lost in how we understand our place in the wider world.

As the revenants sing in the song quoted in Medieval scholar, Claude Lecouteux’s Phantom Armies of the Night:

When we were living/we traveled along the paths;/today when we are dead/we walk between the gardens/striking our bells/and eating peppers.Between the gardens of heaven and earth, in the margins of creation, walking the ancient Spirit Roads that line the land in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. The Nazca lines in Peru are the most familiar Spirit Roads for most people, having been popularized by ancient alien theorists as extraterrestrial runways, but their true meaning is far more important than some supposed alien intervention. They demarcate the presence of the dead in our lives, and show how cultures across the world, once held a much different view of mortality than we understand today.

Lecouteux’s entire body of work serves to uncover the tracks of these relationships as they weave through folklore, Church records, and historical documents,demonstrating that until very recently our communion with the dead was much more fluid, regular, and marked by a tender remembrance that is most often found today in Latin American and Asian traditions, having been usurped in Europe and the United States by secularists and Evangelicals bent on oblivion or a binary worldview.

Misconstrued by Victorian veiling, the mask, shroud, and other costumes associated with this season, have been relegated to apotropaic magic, or protective charms to ward off ill tidings in the coming year, or during the time when the ‘veil is thin’. However our ancestors did not sit huddled in their houses while the winds of November called down the leaves. Lighting bonfires, they leapt through the flames, to purify the flesh, and embrace the linguistic trick that brings bon (good) so close to bone.

Like Aghori in India, these rites were an embrace of the cremation ground, whose virtues were hailed in the historical record by a Germanic trader who mocked the Christian, Judaic and Muslim rituals of burial, as noted by Hans-Peter Hasenfratz in his study, Die religiöse Welt der Germanen: Ritual, Magie, Kult, Mythus (available in English as Barbarian Rites.) The German trader says that while those buried are left to rot in the ground, awaiting union with that numinous stage beyond the flesh, those, like his kin, who are consumed by the fire after death, achieve an instantaneous release into the glory of the next world.

Leaping through the bonfire is a gift to the incarnate souls who have yet to meet Death first hand, where the living are given a small taste of the glory that is reserved for the dead. In like manner the costumes of the season are not wards, but means of union which we wear to participate in the processional return and reunion with the past and future.

Even today’s celebrations of Halloween in the United States still hint at this, were the children dress, and take on liminal form, to be fed in sweet remembrance of those that passed over in previous years. They incarnate the dead, who live on for a few moments again embodied, to impart blessings and messages to those that carry their lineage forward.

In Latin America, the traditions surrounding Dia de los Muertos bring this much closer to the forefront of our awareness. Here Death is embraced, and the dead honored with tenderness and celebration. R. Andrew Chesnut, Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, in his wonderful book  Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint’, shows how this remembrance has become a daily devotion for many in the Americas.

While our contemporary media continues the moralizing and white washing campaign of the Victorian folklorists, portraying Her as nothing more than a morbid icon of the drug war, Chesnut’s work reveals the complexity of Her manifestation, and the embrace of life’s fullness that Her devotion represents. As Dona Queta, who tends the main shrine to Santa Muerte in Mexico City, says “Santa Muerte is a ray of light...she is very fair and hears the prayers of all. (Hers) is the faith that will never die."

Santa Muerte, Holy Death, is a familiar friend, mother of our union with the fullness of life’s cycles. The morbid voyeurism of our media would reduce Her to a political talking point that demonizes the enemies our culture sees fit to create, however She still stands above it in the heart of Her ardent devotees.

Even in the mass mediated haze of the contemporary U.S. culture there are some who have begun to awaken to death’s possibilities. Caitlin Doughty, a 28 year old mortician and crematory operator from Los Angeles, has co-founded The Order of the Good Death, to bring this positive view of death back into our culture. As she says in an interview on the LAist:

“Death used to be such a huge part of the life of a community. A hundred years ago, you'd see dead bodies in your home, at your church, sometimes dead bodies in the street. Now that we don't see corpses anymore—except on TV—we can kind of go through life pretending that death doesn't really exist, but it does. And it's coming whether you're prepared or not. My argument is that your life is better and your brain healthier if you're prepared.”

Doughty’s work is not necessarily predicated on any maudiline religiosity, or antiquarian explorations of faith traditions, her take on death is closer to Eastern and secular views of annihilationism, and yet even here she finds reason to celebrate. Unfazed by our culture’s avoidance of death, her work offers us an opportunity to embrace our inevitable end in a very contemporary sense, even if we don’t look back to our past traditions for guidance.

We often forget just how much our media influences how we understand the world around us. Lecouteux’s work points this out through bringing forward the interplay between common phenomenological experiences and how their representation changes based on the culture. Chesnut’s work opens up the devotional and affirmative aspects of the notorious ‘Narco Saint’. Doughty reminds us that even in contemporary culture there is a place for Memento Mori. It is important for us to take up these opportunities to reclaim our relationship with our own mortality, and explore the possibilities inherent in the work of these scholars.

So tonight, light a candle, commune with the dead, meditate on the beauty of
Señora de las Sombras, or simply sit in silent remembrance of our natural return to a more elemental state. Whichever way you choose to celebrate, or ignore, the spirits during this season keep in mind that we will all one day, “walk between the gardens.” Whether you go with a grin or with a grimace, is up to how well you get to know death while you’re still among the living.


David Metcalfe, whose work has been featured in The Immanence of Myth (Weaponized Press, 2011) and Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness (North Atlantic/Evolver Editions, 2012), is an independent scholar whose research focuses on alternative approaches to understanding cognition.

His scholarship is based on psychological and philosophic approaches to consciousness, accompanied by attendant studies in theology, literature, history, art, folkloristics, ritual studies and ethnography. His current work is related to how anomalous and transpersonal experiences are codified, cultivated and encultured through narrative, art and popular culture. As an artist his interest includes how mediumship, OBE, past life regression, incubation, lucid dreaming and NDE influence the creative process, and how this in turn affects personal narratives. 

He is acting Books Editor for The Revealer, the online journal for NYU’s Center for Religion and Media, a Contributing Editor with Reality Sandwich and The Daily Grail, and writes regularly for Modern, Evolutionary Landscapes, Alarm Magazine, and The Teeming Brain. He also co-hosts an online study group, The Art of Transformations, for the International Alchemy Guild.

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