Death has been a recurring theme over the past week. On the one hand, Halloween surrounded us with constant reminders of it: you didn’t have to look very far to find skeletons, ghosts, and grim reapers wandering about the streets. These may be costumes, but they certainly resonate with the origins of Halloween, Samhain. This Gaelic festival marks the day when the spiritual world comes closest to the physical world, and the time when the souls of the dead return to the realm of the living.
On the other hand, the next day was Dia de muertos, the Day of the Dead. This day and its traditions originating from Mexico honor and celebrate those who have passed on from this life. The Mexican Students Association hosted a Day of the Dead celebration on Sunday evening in the basement of Marsh chapel. Several dozens of people gathered in the Marsh room over food, conversation, and the festivities of the day. A table had been set up, decorated with skulls and pictures people had placed of individuals who had passed away.
One picture in particular caught my attention as I looked at the photos and images. It was a picture of a young man who resembled a student who lived on my floor during my freshman year. When we were away on spring break, he was killed in Mexico City, his home. I remember hearing the news at first from friends who were posting on Facebook in response to his death. I remember the shock, the inability to speak or cry or respond to this loss of a person that I knew and saw regularly.
As I stood before this photograph that reminded me so much of him, a new sensation crept in among the liveliness and uplifting mood of the evening. The sensation was bittersweet, almost as if a cloud had silently passed by and settled over where I was standing. My words alone wouldn’t nearly do justice in attesting to the life that he lived, nor in describing the person that he was.
Still, the moment I saw the photograph and thought of him was a poignant reminder of how we as humans respond to death and loss. Grief and shock are emotions that weigh all too heavily on us when we are mourning loss. More difficult, still, are the continuous reminders of a person that is no longer present. I believe Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem phrases it pointedly in her poem, “Dirge Without Music”:
“The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.”
Remembrance of loss can be as painful as the loss itself. And yet, I had to remind myself that the evening was meant to remember and celebrate the life of those who have died. That isn’t always easy, especially when we are mourning. The dead never completely die, not for as long as we remember them.
It seems fitting that the Gospel reading from this past Sunday was the death and resurrection of Lazarus. The image of the stone being pushed aside and Lazarus emerging in his bandages is evocative of the eventual resurrection of Christ. Unfortunately, I know of no instance where a person has miraculously been resurrected. But I do know that death, as well as life, is a transition. As my fellow Marsh Associate Courtney said in her blog post, grieving for loss is okay. It is okay to recognize that in the present moment, life does not feel fine, and that it may not feel fine for a very long time. One can acknowledge that few spoken words can comfort, and that there isn’t much anyone can do to help. In time, though, by remembering and honoring that which was, perhaps we can begin the transition to life after loss. With time, perhaps we can transition to life after death.