All Saints and All Souls
French cemeteries, unlike English ones with their lawns and trees, are grim affairs, all gravel and gravestones. Yet once a year, at Toussaint, All-Saints-tide, a remarkable thing happens in them, again, quite unlike anything that happens here. For the previous couple of weeks, the markets have been selling pots of chrysanthemums, and for Toussaint these are placed on the graves of family and friends. Suddenly, the usually drab cemeteries blaze with living colour – bronze, white, purple, red, yellow. It is a wonderful, joyous celebration of the dead, an acknowledgment by the living of the debt they owe to the dead. It is of course a practically universal human custom to have ways of remembering the ancestors, without whom we would not be who we are, or indeed be at all. It grieves me to think that this wonderful impulse has become debased into the tricking and treating of ghouls and ghosties on the eve of All Hallows Day.
I’d like to think that the young ‘ghouls’ of Halloween are taken home to a nice family meal at which everyone recalls what they can remember of those who have died: of Grannie, and old Uncle Jim, and the kind old woman next door who died last year, and maybe a school friend or their parent. And remember them in their reality – their peccadilloes, their blind spots, their eccentricities – their ‘tricks’, if you like – as well as their ‘treats’: their kindnesses, their loyalty, their fortitude. This is not just about helping the children get used to the idea that we all grow up and come eventually to death; it is also about helping all of us, young and old alike, to be aware both of human individuality in all its wonderful variety and of the ways we are shaped by the people whom we knew and who have died. And aware too that the dead are not ghosts inhabiting some limbo of undead individuals, lying in wait to scare and haunt us. No: they are very much with us, all the time, in our genes, in our habits, in our ways of thinking; their example and their influence, for good or for ill, are part of who we are. They will not be wholly lost to human sight until their influence and their genes have become unrecognisably diluted.
Because those dead people who most strongly influenced us are powerfully present in our minds, both consciously and unconsciously, it is hard for us to let them die, so to speak, even after mourning has enabled us to absorb the fact of their death. If we do something we feel they wouldn’t have approved of, we sometimes can’t quite shake off the uncomfortable feeling that they are somehow still around, judging us and telling us of their disapproval. Similarly, it seems wrong to make trenchant criticism of our dead, as if we feel we might somehow hurt their feelings. All this is evidence of the amazingly strong links that bind us one to another in life. But it is not evidence that when we die we continue against all appearances to exist as separate consciousnesses, though it does perhaps help to explain how a belief of a life after death seems to have come to be so widely accepted among our distant ancestors once they had evolved sufficiently to experience emotional bonding with each other. The belief in life after death is not, I think, mere wishful thinking as much as evidence of an awareness of the active and powerful presence of the dead in our minds.
And perhaps more often than we generally like to acknowledge that presence can have a negative influence on us; in that sense it is indeed true that the dead can ‘haunt’ us. Both because we meet our elders when they have mostly got over any youthful escapades they may have had, and because they represent for us a state of society against which our own generation must naturally and properly rebel, they often act as a brake on our independence and creativity, and can continue to do so inside our minds after their deaths. We have to free ourselves from these negative influences if we are to become truly ourselves. This is one way we can make good use of this season. On All Souls Day, we recite the names of our dead so that we can put them outside of ourselves, so that we can think of them as separate from us, so that we can let them – and ourselves – rest. This is something to think of when we pray for the ‘repose of the souls of the departed’.
But the day before All Souls is All Saints, or All Hallows, Day, which encourages us to remember and treasure all the many good and enriching things our dead have implanted in us, and to resolve to ponder what was best about them so that it can continue living in us. There is incidentally no need to wait until those whose influence we treasure are dead before we allow ourselves to be conscious of our debt to them – and if they are still alive, we can have the joyous opportunity of telling them about the pleasure and satisfaction we take in pondering their legacy to us. This means putting our elders, living or dead, under judgement as we decide which parts of their legacy are and are not valuable to us as we live our futures. This should in turn remind us that we too one day will be put under judgement by those who have to sort out which bits of what we leave with them are of value and to be treasured, and which bits are best rejected. As far as we are concerned of course it won’t matter a jot what they decide about our legacy when we are no more. But if we think now that their judgement will be that we were mostly best forgotten – to be recalled more on All Souls Day than on All Saints Day, so to speak – that means that we are, now, living lives that could be flourishing more abundantly. This season is not just about the dead; it is about us, the living, too.