Ancient Christianity Confronts Death and Halloween
By Fr. John Parker
I remember well walking the streets of our cozy steel-mill suburb of Pittsburgh with our two and four year-old sons in a wagon, flanked by our neighbors and their children as we went off trick-or-treating. Without leaving even the first block I thought, “Toto, we aren’t in Kansas anymore!” Whole front yards had been dug up and were re-made to look like cemeteries with carved headstones. Adults lay in the homemade graves with chainsaws, jumping up and revving their power tools, scaring children to death. Others would hide in bushes with plastic (thank God) machetes, wearing ripped clothing and dripping with fake blood. When the children would approach, they’d stumble out. Of course other houses had the standard cobwebs, skulls and goblins. Any number of them had those yard decorations which look like a half-buried man trying to free himself from the crypt. Halloween there was all of this---not to mention the costumes of folks going house to house.
Lest we pridefully suggest that this doesn’t happen here—take a look around in your neighborhood. Such ‘decoration’ is on the rise even in the beautiful low country. One doesn’t even have to go outside. Just read the mail. How about the front page of a local costume store advertisement: “Angel of Darkness”, modeled by a teenage-looking girl, boasting a scant miniskirt—all black—with a mesh-like, low cut, v-neck top, complete with shimmering red lipstick and a 4 inch crucifix. All of this and more will be seen here in our town—children of all ages parading the streets, many dressed in the most gruesome, ‘realistic’ costumes.
Contrast this to the average contemporary funeral. Many adults won’t even let their children even go to the viewing of a deceased parent, grandparent, or friend. Others won’t let their children go to a burial. “I don’t know how they would handle death,” they explain. Or, more often, “they are too young to face death.” Today, strangely enough, most embalmed corpses look more alive than they did in the last months and years of their lives—an ironic contrast to the zombies and un-dead we’ll see on Halloween.
What is the lesson we learn from our society? It is okay to play dead. It is acceptable and fun to masquerade in gruesome costumes, to scare even the smallest child—or to subject one’s small child to such fright. And it is normal to pretend that real death doesn’t exist.
But from the most ancient times, this is not the Christian view. Death was never a ‘market niche’, as Halloween and funeral choices have become today. Halloween is the second most lucrative shopping ‘season’ of the year, while funeral options now range from putting one’s favorite sports team on a custom casket to having one’s dead relative or pet turned into a diamond. (How far we’ve come—from, “the ring was my grandmother’s” to “the ring is my grandmother”.)
Death was never entertainment. Consider a show advertised on primetime television on 10/13 showing a young woman referring to another woman’s attempted suicide by drowning in a tub “the most romantic” idea she’d heard of recently. The woman was attempting to be ‘one’ with her dead boyfriend. What does this teach the viewer about death? About life?
In the ‘old days’, two things were sure: death and taxes. Today, some evade taxes, and most attempt to evade death. Americans spend billions of dollars each year attempting to make the dead look living and the living look dead in late October.
Not a market niche. Not entertainment. No, death was, and is, a sad reality. Everyone who is born is guaranteed to die. Death is to be hated. According to St. Paul, “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:26). Death is the ultimate enemy of man.
So, for 2000 years, the holiest Christians have taught us always to keep our death before us—to remember that we are going to die. An ancient Christian evening prayer says, “O Master who loves mankind, will not this couch [bed] be my grave?” Some monks throughout the centuries have even slept in coffins. But let it be understood that this wasn’t a game or a fettish. These prayers and actions were to remind a Christian that we have this life only (and in an unknown-to-us amount) to love and serve both God and our neighbor—to live life well, and in so doing, to prepare for our judgment. Do we live like this?
Halloween, in its present day state, links death with fear and fear with death. It is an evening, now prepared for as a ‘season’, which scars the mind, the memory, and the soul by its adrenaline-rush ‘thrills’ of haunted maize mazes, skeletons in the yard, and increasing gore. Whatever its connection is or was to ancient pagan rituals or baptized Christian fetes (the eve of Western Christianity’s All Saints Day, hence “All Hallow’s Even”—Halloween), this is no more. The simplicity of walking through the neighborhood dressed as Peter Pan and Tinkerbell to collect candy in an old pillowcase is rapidly being supplanted by horror, pranks, and in numerous places even a gruesome eve of Halloween often called “Mischief Night”. That evening is filled with violence, arson, looting, and crime.
Many funerals now, instead of being the committal of a family member into the hands of God, are now further displays of decadence and individuality, if not attempted ‘immortality’. Thousands and thousands of dollars are buried in the ground in high-end caskets, trimmed in the finest metals, sealed almost hermetically in lead or stainless vaults. So much for “dust thou art, and unto dust shall thou return”.
Christians are called to remember death, not to fear it or commercialize it. In fact, Jesus Christ conquered death by his own death and resurrection. Orthodox Christians hymn this joyous truth every year, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” We all die, but that death does not have to be permanent. This is the Gospel. It is precisely this remembrance of death which leads Orthodox Christian to pray so frequently in their services, “for a Christian ending to our lives, painless, blameless, and peaceful, and for a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ”.
More and more, our society is replacing reality with ‘virtual reality’, death with faux life, truth with lies. Perhaps, once again, we can recapture a night and even an industry devoted to imitating and commercializing death to a remembrance of this inevitable end to each of our lives, and in so doing, to live the virtuous life, loving God and neighbor.
Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Mt. Pleasant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 843-881-5010.