From the archives from the Nov. 2005 issue of Women’s Post
By Adam Levin
Over the last month, I’ve been thinking a lot about that great abstraction, death.
Apparently, this is normal for this time of year. The ancient Irish and Scottish festival of samhain (pronounced “sa-WEEN”) marked the new year, and the Welsh had a similar holiday. The Celts believed that at this time of year, the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its thinnest, and hauntings, visitations and visions at their most numerous. Accordingly, the early Celts carved jack o’lanterns out of turnips to commemorate the legend of a ghost named Jack, who was fated to wander the world with only a lighted turnip to accompany him. The lantern was also meant both to ward off evil spirits and to commemorate the dead, as candles are in many cultures worldwide. When the Scots and Irish arrived in North America, they found the pumpkin larger and better suited to their carvings.
This pagan holiday may have given birth to Halloween and to All Saints’ and All Souls’ days, and even indirectly to England’s Bonfire Night of November 5. But to see the pagan roots of these holidays today, you have only to visit Mexico on November 1 or 2, the Day of the Dead. If you can’t afford the ticket, read Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 book Under the Volcano. Horror aficionados can instead try El Día de los Muertos by Brian A. Hopkins.
I’ve had other, less-pleasant reasons for morbid reflection. Autumn is the season in which my brother died. As well, my partner’s father recently passed away after suffering through a terrible autoimmune disorder for years. On returning from his funeral, I learned that the man who was my best friend through several of our school years was stabbed in what is believed to have been a contract killing.
For some reason, poetry is the natural medium for writing about death. The classic book on death is Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam, a long poem occasioned by the death of Arthur Henry Hallam, who was to be Tennyson’s brother-in-law before Hallam died suddenly at 22 years. “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” by W. H. Auden, is a must-read. More recently, Canadian poet Dennis Lee’s The Death of Harold Ladoo is a masterful, honest portrait of a man who, like my friend, was murdered while visiting the Caribbean. Look for other stirring death poems by Rainer Maria Rilke and Matthew Arnold, among others.
Turning from poetry to non-fiction, the past years have seen a bumper crop of books on palliative care, bereavement, and “rethinking death.”
Linda Bonnington Vocatura’s recent Dying to Be Alive: Death As Spiritual Healer falls into what Celtic poet Dylan Thomas would call the “Death Shall Have No Dominion” category. Some thought-provoking works by Canadians include Heather Robertson’s Meeting Death and Katherine Ashenburg’s The Mourner’s Dance.
As for fiction, you’d be hard-pressed to find a great novel without at least one death in it.
A.J. Levin is the author of Monks’ Fruit (Nightwood, 2004)