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  • Stephanie Kohler

Connecting Life and Death

October is probably most recognized as the Halloween time—costumes and candies and parties. However, this time of year has many other associations and layers, which can help us connect to the planet and ourselves.

Seasonally, the northern hemisphere is in a time of decay and death, as nature retreats into its winter cycle. This part of the cycle, the decay and death, is vividly sensory, easy to witness. The temperature drops. Leaves change colors and fall. Plants wither.

For millennia, as people across cultures have observed this natural cycle, many have believed that this time of year is a potent time to connect with the dead. This current of belief challenges mainstream American culture, which is highly squeamish and uncomfortable with death. This awkwardness manifests in many ways—people often dress a certain way; they are careful to say only nice things. Openly grieving people are often told to calm down and not be upset. Being receptive, however, to the lessons from other cultures can demonstrate how to hold death in respect, ease, and even in a more expansive view of life.

In the Celtic wheel of the year, the midpoint between fall equinox and winter solstice—essentially the end of October/beginning of November—is known as Samhain (pronounced “Sow-en”). A common description of this time is that “the veil between the worlds is thin.” Meaning that the boundary between the living and the dead is softened, as we observe the death of nature around us. The timing with nature’s own death cycle allows the environment to hold a relevant container, as people process the losses of loved ones no longer alive.

Samhain celebrations often include rituals and spaces to honor the dead—including ancestors, near relatives, and friends. Some people emphasize those who have died in the year since the previous Samhain. Instead of ignoring grief or stifling expressions of it, people create an intentional space to honor the process of feelings around life and death.

Mexican culture has el Día de los Muertos. The visuals of this holiday are widely known —skeleton face paint, sugar skull cookies. In recent years, they have been incorporated into many Halloween celebrations. But there is more to the holiday than distinctive costumes and food.

For example, many people celebrate el Día de los Muertos by creating altars for dead relatives or friends. The altars often have photos or personal objects, as well as food that the (now dead) person liked. After people have offered the food on the altar, they often have picnics in graveyards, where they remember and celebrate those who are no longer living, while eating the food that the dead people enjoyed.

I first learned about el Día de los Muertos while I was a high school student. Like many Americans, I was averse to it. Having a picnic in a graveyard? With food prepared for the altar of a dead person? The holiday seemed very morbid.

As I have aged, though, and (of course) lost dear friends and family, I now appreciate traditions which connect the living and the dead. The celebrations for Samhain and el Día de los Muertos are beautiful opportunities for communion—for both the living and the dead. These celebrations honor death as a natural part of the greater cycle of life—the undeniable connection of life and death. They also create spaces for the living to connect to each other, in the shared space of acknowledgement, remembrance, grief, and even joy.

These traditions have helped me connect more deeply to myself and my own life, as well as people around me, both living and dead. Not in a morbid way, nor because I dismiss death as no big deal. I appreciate the idea of connecting with people I loved who are now dead, just as I am grateful not to go through that process alone.

Because I can acknowledge the connection between life and death, I take far fewer things for granted. I have also developed my own ways and rituals to connect with the dead. Many of the altars and in my home connect me to the dead. Sometimes the way I dress, even the way I talk, are currents in the river of life and death. I feel more alive when I honor those connections.

So, at this potent time of year, I encourage you to explore for yourself. You don’t have to wear makeup or hold hands around a bonfire or bake sugar skull cookies. In the process of celebrating life by acknowledging death, you may discover many more layers of connection—to yourself, to others living, to those no longer living. And perhaps as well to nature and the greater currents of the universe.

#stephaniekohler #bhakti

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