Unfolding the Map
When William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) relates the story of the Chief Justice's ghost on the Dover village green, it causes me to ponder a bit on the sometimes thin separation of our world from that of the dead. Should you want to see where Dover is located, say a little prayer for those who have passed on and see the map.
"On the village green in Dover, citizens successfully buried the ghost of Chief Justice Sam Chew in broad daylight. Around 1745, the judge's shade developed a nocturnal penchant for meditating on the common and beckoning to passersby. His honor's whangdoodle began to keep the streets empty after dark and tavernkeepers complained. So residents dug a symbolic grave on the green, and, in full sunshine, tolled bells as clergymen spoke the restless soul to its peace."
Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 13
Recently, here in Albuquerque, we celebrated Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead. A day that we in European traditions have turned into a celebration of spooks and ghouls, of treats and tricks, and of costumes and candy is now mostly celebrated by little kids on parade at dusk while their parents keep a watchful eye on them. Halloween is a sanitized holiday, the original purpose of which was to highlight the rending of the veil between our world and the spirit world, but has been lost in commercialization and the bottom line of candy sales.
The origins of Halloween are therefore obscured. Perhaps an amalgamation of different Roman and pagan holidays, the day was usually marked as the end of the harvest and also, according to Celtic traditions, when the door to the Otherworld opened and spirits and sprites could join us here in ours. Later, after Christian influences on the holiday, children went around to ask for cakes and other treats to offer as prayers to lost souls. Of course, there are only echoes of that left in our Halloween, where it's all about the candy gained and consumed.
But the Hispanic cultural tradition has kept a bit of the original intent of the day alive. In Albuquerque, families take time to come together in feasts. They gather together to spruce up the gravesites of their families and leave fresh flowers and other mementos. Ofrendas, or altars, dedicated to the memories of friends and loved ones are constructed in homes and adorned with food and mementos important to the person or persons being commemorated. The ofrendas are often garlanded with marigolds, which are believed to attract souls to the altar where they may consume the spiritual essence of the food left as offerings and hear their living relatives talk about them.
The symbols of the day are calaveras, or skulls. These are fashioned out of sugar and decorated in fancy and floral patterns and used to decorate for the holiday. Catrinas are also brought out. These carved figures usually depict a skeleton lady who represents someone from a higher class, a reminder that while riches may separate us on this earth, there is no difference between us when it comes to death. We will all live our lives and die, and be reduced to the bare elements of what we are. Skin and flesh, then bone, then dust.
My wife and I, after years of attending, had an opportunity to participate in the Marigold Parade, which over the past few years has become an Albuquerque tradition. The parade features individuals and groups, dressed up with faces painted like calaveras, marching with grim faces (because death is grim) in a macabre procession that is at once somber and at the same time joyous. The parade not only celebrates the thin veil between life and death, but also the follies of the living. This year, small makeshift floats lampooning the 1% vs. the 99%, and other national and local politics, were mixed in with floats (usually the decorated beds of pickup trucks) remembering people who have passed on. Because it is Albuquerque, a center of "lowrider" culture, the end of the parade featured lowriders, some equipped with hydraulics, filled with skeletal drivers and passengers in a strange, motorized death procession.
Like my feelings about unexplained phenomena, which I've written about in this forum in the past, I've always wanted to be able to believe in spirits and ghosts. As a scientist, I am taught only to believe in what I've been able to observe, and to even question that. On that score, I have never observed a ghost. I've tried - I've visited supposed haunted places, including dragging my wife on our anniversary up to a haunted hotel, the St. James, in Cimarron, New Mexico on our anniversary weekend. The strange smell of cigar smoke in our hotel room that was unaccounted for wasn't enough to convince me (though the always accommodating clerk told me that I was probably smelling the ghostly poker game in the card room around the corner). Like most people, I wonder what happens when we die, and if our spirits and essences just disappear into the universe, or whether there is something beyond this life that we can look forward to, as many religions promise us.
But on the other hand, the thought of restless spirits roaming around, never finding a place of peace, is also quite disturbing. If there are ghosts tied, by some unfulfilled longing or unfinished business, to a place or location where their sole purpose is to haunt until the end of time, then their existence seems sad to me. They can't move on, and they are trapped in a kind of loop. They are never able to leave that place and therefore, they never find the peace they desperately crave. Isn't death supposed to be an eternity of peace after a lifetime of toil on this earth?
In a similar train of thought, my wife just reminded me of an interesting concept. We read a short story once about a waiting room where souls of dead people are trapped as long as their names are spoken on earth. In this vision, the people who are unknown are able to truly pass on because they are forgotten. Those that seek fame and fortune, through vanity or other reasons, are those that remain in the waiting room purgatory. If we are continually tied to this earth by how we are remembered, then maybe we aren't doing the dead a favor at all. Maybe we, who must comfort ourselves and deal with our grief of those departed, actually are complicit in their inability to achieve rest. What if they resent us for this? What if they just wish that we would forget them so that we can move on, and in the process let them go where they need to be?
That's why, out of all the traditions, I like New Orleans' tradition around death the best. Steeped in Christianity, it still maintains some of the non-Christian elements that make it special. The deceased are mourned for a period, usually the first part of a jazz funeral. Once the coffin is blessed however, a huge party breaks out. The dead are "going home." We have mourned, now we can be happy for them. They've left the toils and cares of this world behind. If anything, the dead should be grieving for us poor souls left on this hard rock to complete our own journeys. They've finished theirs.
My wife and I do a global music radio show on KUNM, and we did a show based on the Day of the Dead. What follows is a mix of over 30 songs that are around the theme of life and death. All you have to do is click on it and play. Yes, that's me and my wife, Megan Kamerick, in the picture. Enjoy!
If you want to know more about Dover
Next up: Somewhere on the Delaware Shore