On the Day of the Dead

Life is wasted on the living.

Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the \Galaxy

This post appears on the first of November: All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows (hence Hallowe’en for the previous evening). In Celtic tradition it is Samhain, the mid-point between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. In Latin countries it is the Day of the Dead, a time to remember and honour the dead, and also to celebrate life. It’s a family occasion, a time to visit graves and to familiarise the new generation with those who went before.

I have discussed elsewhere my view that one of the great failings of our present-day civilisation is our inability to accept, or even acknowledge, the fact of death. It leads us into such ludicrous displays of hubris as to try and stop the outbreak of a novel coronavirus by ineffective and profoundly counter-productive measures, including the quasi-compulsory rollout of inadequately-tested vaccines that, it is now apparent, did not prevent the virus from spreading, as we were assured they would. (I know everyone is now claiming that no such assurances were given, but anyone with a longer memory than a goldfish knows that they were, quite apart from the abundant video footage of everyone from Joe Biden down saying so quite unequivocally.) Apparently we couldn’t handle the idea that anyone might die.

More generally, we end up having a dysfunctional relationship with our own history. We aren’t quite at the level of the Incas, who treated their dead as if they were still alive, going so far as to ask their opinion in political debates, but we very much want to imagine that the dead were in all respects the same as us, and answerable to our standards. Strangely, it doesn’t seem to occur to people who think this way that one day they will die and future generations may not agree with how they lived. Driving cars may well seem to them as appalling as widespread chattel slavery does to us.

The Day of the Dead is an opportunity for us to acknowledge that we are a part of the larger current of human history. The dead are still a part of us; without them, we wouldn’t even be here. Our language, our food, our customs are all bequests to us from the dead. Without a connection to the past – which implies a connection to the dead – the world is bizarre, arbitrary and incomprehensible. It’s like being one of those people who wakes up with total amnesia.

These days we are much exercised by colonialism. One of its distinguishing features, it seems to me, is the desire to eradicate the traditions of the colonialised and replace them with one’s own. In this sense, the Roman Empire was not a colonial empire, because the Romans didn’t really care what you got up to so long as you kept the peace and paid your taxes. Consider, for example, what the British did to the last Sikh Maharajah, Duleep Singh, when they conquered liberated his kingdom in 1849. He was converted to Christianity, made to cut off his hair – which is a big deal for a Sikh – and ended up living like a country gentleman in a castle in Perthshire. To take another example, the Spanish invested a lot of effort in destroying the manuscripts of various central and south American civilisation, without for the most part knowing or caring what they contained. And so on.

In a perverse way, it seems to me that we are now engaged in colonialising ourselves, at least in this sense. Many of our ancestors thought, spoke and acted in ways that are repugnant to us. This has certainly been the case for many of the dead themselves: the subjects of Queen Victoria, for instance, were horrified by the loose morals of their Regency predecessors, a point of view which was reversed by their more permissive successors, and so it goes.

Let us take a moment to remember The Family Shakespeare, an edition of Shakespeare’s plays with all the naughty bits removed by a lady named Henrietta Maria Bowdler and her brother Thomas. (Do follow the link to Wikipedia; some of the example edits are hilarious.) In so far as this is remembered at all, it is in the word “bowdlerise,” which is not usually meant as a compliment. But we can only afford to be amused by this because we still have the unexpurgated texts. If The Family Shakespeare was the only version we had, we would be much the poorer.

(Of course the Bowdlers weren’t the first people to muck about with the Bard. For many years, King Lear was performed in a version that had a happy ending, which it’s fair to say is not quite what the author intended.)

If we cannot acknowledge the dead, if we cannot accept that they still live in us, then we will lose everything they have to give to us. We will turn ourselves spiritual, social, cultural and intellectual orphans. This would be foolish at any time, but in an age of profound and multi-dimensional crisis such as we now confront it verges on the suicidal. Just because Marcus Aurelius owned slaves doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything of value to tell us about dealing with loss, for instance.

At this time of year, according to tradition, the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead becomes thin and permeable. The dead can appear to us; perhaps speak to us. I for one will take good advice wherever I can find it.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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