Getting the most out of Halloween

            When I was a kid back in the old days, none of my friends and I would dress up in costumes for Halloween.  We just grabbed a paper back and hit as many houses as we could before the time our parents said we had to be home.  It was all about the candy.

            How we celebrate Halloween these days, along with just everything else, has changed.  The National Retail Federation estimates that in this country we will spend $7.4 billion this year, including $350 on costumes for pets.  To put that in context, we spent $2.4 million in all of 2007 on animal welfare and so far our country has invested $311 in response to the Ebola crisis.

            We will have spent more on Halloween costumes for our pets than we will have on addressing Ebola.

            What do you make of that? 

            It’s kind of like what we do when we go to Disney World, isn’t it?  It’s about taking a vacation from reality.  It’s kind of strange when you think about it.  A lot of the imagery associated with Halloween has to do with death—ghosts, tombstones, skeletons.  We make a joke out of death and then pay money to have a trip through a haunted house scare the hell out of us.

            One of the things travelling does, in addition to giving us the opportunity to learn about another culture, is to help us see how we live with new eyes.  In my frequent travels to Thailand I learned that sometimes Buddhist monks will do their daily meditation in their temple’s crematory.  Instead of avoiding the thought of death, they try to embrace it, the theory being that when you finally come to grips with your own mortality, nothing in life can frighten you anymore.

            I’ve always been taken with the wisdom of that practice.  It doesn’t cost anything.  It’s not a temporary escape from reality but an embracing of it which can result in an equanimity that lasts a lifetime. 

            When I interviewed Laurel McMahon for the story in this issue on p. ___, we got to talking about why she is so taken with cemeteries.  “I love cemeteries like Forest Home,” she said, “which was designed to be very park like.  Those who designed it anticipated that family and friends would come and stroll up and down the pathways and enjoy the beautiful trees.  They would come to picnic along the Desplaines River and do their courting there.”

            I actually did that one time.  Years ago a lady I was dating and I rode our bikes through one of the Jewish cemeteries and had a very enjoyable time trying to imagine what life was like for the people buried there on the basis of what we saw on their tombstones.

            Ask your kids if they can imagine going on a date to a cemetery.  Can you imagine yourself dropping the pick up line, “Hey good looking, you want to go for a stroll in Forest Home Cemetery?”

            One reason we can’t imagine doing that is because to a great extent we’ve disassociated ourselves from death.  It’s no longer a part of our everyday lives.  When I was a kid back in Manitowoc, my friends in the country would raise a heifer for their 4-H project, show it at the county fair and then sell it to a butcher who would make hamburgers out of it.  I’m sure some of them got teary eyed as the animal they raised was being loaded onto a truck, but it wasn’t devastating for them.  On the farm, death was a part of life.  You didn’t get the bratwurst you were eating from the Jewel.  You ground the pork you used to make the sausage from the hog you slaughtered the day before.

            Now days, said McMahon, we can maintain the fantasy of immortality more easily because modern medicine has come up with drugs which cure many diseases which were lethal in the days when Forest Home Cemetery opened for business.  In other words, by being able to prolong the inevitable, we can pretend it won’t happen.  Not to us anyway.

            McMahon added that another reason she loves being in cemeteries is that the tombstones bear what can be understood as the last message either the person now in the coffin below or their loved ones wanted to give to the world.  Beloved wife.  Dear mother.  A Masonic symbol.  A cross.

            OK, so on Nov. 1 your kids will probably be on a sugar high, right?  So herd them into the SUV and drive over to Forest Home Cemetery.  Enjoy the autumn colors all around you, shuffle through the leaves, as a family make up stories about the people who have interesting grave stones, sit by the Desplaines River and imagine what life was like for the Potawatomies who first lived there.

            And if your kids accuse you of being weird—you should be used to that by now anyway—know that you’ll be helping them learn to live well by gradually coming to terms with death.  And as is often the case, they might enjoy the outing in spite of it being weird.

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