I have always liked Halloween. I grew up Catholic, and Halloween is followed two days later by All Souls’ Day. That time also includes El Día de Muertos. It is a time for thinking about death and those who have gone into it.
I have been aware of mortality–my own, and everyone’s around me–from a very young age. A cousin died at 10, when I was 2; I don’t know when I first became aware of it, but I was pretty young. (My earliest memory is sitting in our car and seeing her come to the hospital window to wave.) My grandfather, whom I loved dearly, died when I was 5. My newborn baby brother died when I was 6. (I have a photo of him in his coffin.) A classmate and her younger sister and another child were killed in a car accident the summer after we were in fourth grade. My best friend’s 16-year-old brother was killed in a diving accident when we were about 12.
When I was 5, and again when I was 7, I was seriously ill. I didn’t, I think, know at the time that I might die, but I wasn’t much older before I did realize that I could have. In a way, I think of every day I have had since then as lagniappe.
Death and the possibility of what comes after has always interested me. Being raised as a believer, I envisioned heaven, but I gave that up along with everything else theistic decades ago. The idea of some kind of “survival” after death, however, has continued to fascinate me.
I like cemeteries. So does our younger daughter. Both of us are interested in death, and neither of us fears it. She was quite young when she first told me she wasn’t afraid to die. (This isn’t “nature,” as she is adopted, and while I “nurtured” her interest and acceptance, I don’t think I initiated it.) For me, cemeteries do represent a kind of afterlife; as long as someone, even a stranger taking pictures or doing genealogy, recognizes one’s having existed, one is still “present,” in a sense, in the world. I acknowledge the reasons for not continuing with the burial-and-monument tradition, and I specify cremation for myself for those reasons, but I deeply regret the loss.
I mentioned genealogy there–that’s another of my interests. One of the commercials for Ancestry has a young man saying that you start to feel that you know the people you “meet” in researching, and I agree. For me, it isn’t just knowing “where I come from” except in a very general sense of coming from every human who came before me. The story of how we got to where we are has given me many of my other interests and hobbies throughout my life: studying California history, collecting old bottles (and especially digging for or otherwise finding them in situ), joining historical societies, visiting historical museums, collecting old things in general, exploring ghost towns, reading about the Old West…endless.
In a real sense, the dead are not dead to me, because I picture them (sometimes with literal pictures), I imagine their lives (from their writings or things they left behind), I treasure possessions they once treasured or maybe just used in daily life and discarded. This has helped me, I think, to see a common humanity in everyone–something I have felt from a very young age.
I neither believe nor disbelieve in ghosts. The word “ghost” can mean many things. Energy of some form that can be sensed by some living people under some circumstances–I think that’s a possibility. I have experienced some sensitivity to certain places and one very early odd experience, and people whose reports I trust have had experiences that hint at something we can’t otherwise explain. I don’t think that entities conscious of their “being” as the human they were exist, but I like to read fiction that tells how such existence might play out–and who knows?
As Carl Sagan pointed out, we are all star stuff. Before we were conceived, the energy and/or material for our existence was there, and after we die some of it persists in some form. That’s enough for me.