Every Sunday my Aunt Jessie would visit the graveyard.
The graveyard lay on the other side of town, a little further out than our house, so it became a natural thing for me to join her at our gate and run alongside.
This is how I came to explore the world of tombstones and the sleeping presence of the ancestors of the town. The mystery of death became part of my landscape.
The dead and the living
Later in life, I discovered how my Celtic forebears related to the mystery of death. They felt the presence of their ancestors at times of seasonal transition, particularly the crossing from autumn into winter. At this time the veil between the worlds was said to be thin. Spirits of the dead came out at night and would roam among the living. This is when the festival of Samhain took place.
For Christians, the idea of the dead visiting the earth took the form of the feast day of All Saints/ All Souls/ All Hallows Eve. Later the churches in Britain settled on a fixed date for this feast day: the same autumn/winter threshold as Celtic Samhain. It was no coincidence. Christian festivals were often overlaid on to the old pagan ones to align with their energy and make it easier to draw people into the new religion.
In the northern hemisphere, Samhain (later known as Halloween) took place on the night of October 31 and into the next day, November 1.
In the southern hemisphere, Samhain, the midway point between autumn equinox and winter solstice, falls on April 30. As I write, it is very close.
Crossing into the dark awakens our soul life and connection with those who have passed into the realm of death, both recently and in the deep past of our ancestry.
In Te Ao Māori, the winter festival of Matariki also centres on the ancestors. In this case, the ancestors are celebrated and welcomed as they return with the stars after being lost over the horizon. The ancestors hold cultural and tribal knowledge, and without them, life would be bereft. (I will say more about Matariki in my next newsletter).
Pākehā are still learning to accept the importance of researching our ancestry, even if some of the information gained is troubling. Our forebears have gone before, and their struggles and achievements have laid a foundation for us. Their transgressions open up an opportunity for us to make atonement. When we know our ancestors, we know where we have come from. They are part of who we are. (For those who do not know their genetic ancestral line, a sense of cultural ancestors may take its place or the line of their adopted family.
Each time Samhain comes around is an opportunity to delve deeper into our history.
Honouring the ancestors at Samhain
This year, more than ever, I am thinking of the younger generation as Samhain approaches. How can I bring death and dying into their landscape, the way it was for me? How can I prepare them for my death?
In my book, Sun, Moon and Stars, I suggest that a family member might like to create a simple poster or posters to show the more recent ancestral line and bring the posters out at the time leading up to a family Samhain celebration.
The simple ritual of lighting a candle on a black cloth, then naming those who have died, is one that is always rich and tender for me. We use stones, or pieces of paper with a name written on each one, to place around the candle as we share memories and allow tears to fall.
Planning a pilgrimage
This year I plan to take my granddaughters to the burial ground where my parents’ grave lies. We will take flowers and a bucket of scrapers and scrubbing brushes to clean and refresh their grave and be with them awhile. I will tell stories about these great grandparents that the young ones have never known.
They will learn that the dead are very much with us through memories or presence, especially when the veils are thin.
They will learn that love is the cord that winds through the dark maze of death, connecting us with the beloved ones who have now merged with the elements.
Telling the stories
I will tell them how I ran alongside Aunt Jessie and helped her wash out the jars and place daffodils, camellias or coreopsis into them; and how she told me about the old woman who gave me sweets and who now lay under the earth. I will tell them how my sister and I daringly danced on the slabs of concrete, wondering if we would awaken the dead.
And how I stood in that very graveyard as Aunt Jessie’s coffin was lowered into the rich Taranaki soil while the autumn rain cascaded over us.
Blessings to you as we pass into the dark season,
If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see
your parents and all generations of your ancestors.
All of them are alive in this moment.
—Thich Nhat Hahn
You may read more about ancestors in the last chapter of Growing into Wisdom
And more about the seasonal festivals in my book Celebrating the Southern Seasons
For children and families at Samhain/Halloween, check out Sun, Moon, and Stars