Day of the Dead Skull

Halloween, All Saints’, All Souls’ Day.  Didn’t understand what all these days pushed together meant when I was growing up Catholic.  Except for candy and trick or treating.  That was the big thing.  And carving pumpkins. . . .

The saints weren’t really anyone I could relate to.  Too holy.  Why they had a special day right next to Halloween was anyone’s guess.  All souls too. ‘All’ was too large a number for me to contemplate.

And then you get too old for trick or treating, and Halloween just becomes a holiday for little kids.  A reminder of fall, and the leaves changing colors . . . and occasionally a scary movie.  In your twenties, maybe a costume party or two …. until you move to the border, and start traveling in Mexico. And run up against so many skulls on display this time of year.  Skeletons playing the piano, skeletons dressed up for a wedding, skeletons reading a book, skeletons dancing . . . skeletons basically doing all the everyday things that people do.  Mummy museums - dead people on display.  Picnics in the graveyard with your dead relatives.  A beautifully decorated sugar skull given to me as a gift.  I was totally confused.  What was all this fascination with death?

Little did I know what a move to San Francisco had in store.  Halloween extended to a week-long celebration.  People partying in the streets.  A chance to dress up and revel in not so ‘alter’ egos.  Whether that meant roller skating down the street with five other cross dressers in ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ costumes, or not so wicked witches riding the buses. . . . things were taken to a whole new level.  Halloween wasn’t just for kiddies anymore.

Re-enter skulls.  In my studies.  In my dreams.  In altered state work. Goddesses wearing their necklaces. What were they doing here again? Confronting me with the age-old issues of mortality?  Demonstrating my need to integrate the cycles of life and death?  What?  In an attempt to comprehend I found myself engaged with another culture that privileged skulls – the Hindu Tantrics.

Then both my father and my best friend became ill. Death moved out of the realm of contemplation, and into the realm of everyday reality.  These people I loved – they were here one moment, and gone the next.  My father’s body cast him off, became only a shell he had to leave behind.  My friend’s body became unrecognizable, as she fought to stay in it. Their personalities, their inquisitive minds, their wealth of experiences, where did they go when their bodies threw them out?  It was a mystery.  And how to make meaning in the void?

And so it was this Halloween I myself was called. Two days before, dressed in a long black dress with ritual headgear, I gathered with friends to honor the turning of the seasons, and the ancestors.  The ones who had passed over.  Chanting and drumming, I moved around the circle, calling back to me their presence and their love.  Honoring the gifts they gave me, the place they had in my life.  Releasing to the fire my grief, and my loss.  And sending them love.

Halloween night I went to a chanting circle.  Facing the altar of fall colors in front of me, I found tears streaming down my face as we chanted many of the songs I had sung to my father and my friend through the ravages of their illnesses.

And then I came full circle.  On All Soul’s Day I went to the Mexican Day of the Dead procession.  All these folks in skull face, walking about in the dark, carrying candles for their dead.  Huge skull puppets processing down the street.  Skull drummers drumming.  One woman with a white wedding dress on, and a large skull crown - channeling the death goddess.  Beautiful, powerful, surreal.  Tantric.  One altar in particular I stood in front of for a long time. There was a skull with a heart, holding a baby in her arms, skulls laid out in heart shapes, skulls in the crucifixion pose with jeweled wings, beautiful decorated skull guardians.  Love and death juxtaposed in front of me.  What were we doing here?  Halloween.  All Souls.  Day of the Dead.  Suddenly it became clear.  I left my skull bracelet as an offering.  We, the living, were making friends with death.