Friday, October 29, 2010

Samhain thoughts

A Graceful Death--------------------
Picking the last of the green tomatoes. Rowen in my arms, helping me hold the sack. We snuggle together to stay warm. Frost is definitely coming. Moonlight and streetlamp cast an eerie and dim glow into the garden. The tomatoes can be seen more by the gleam of smooth skin than by their color. Recent wind storms have turned the once well known garden path into a tricky vine covered maze, made even more impassable by the dark and cold. Occasionally a crunch underfoot lets me know when I've missed a fruit and tread on it. These tomatoes will never know a hot sun warming them into ripeness. If I leave them out the frost will turn them into black and brown mush. Perhaps I can offer them a more dignified death after a slow ripening on my counter. Seems the least I can do for these last babies of the beloved vines. Our bag is full. We brush by the vines on our way out, quietly saying goodbye, these vines contributed to our health; raised from seed with loving care, the vines have repayed the love with the gift of tomatoes. It's always a little sad to see them end. I tell them their death is not in vain. I have their seed being carefully preserved so their line will continue. Maybe it helps, I know it helps me. My way of giving back to the plants that nourish me. A graceful death. A Samhain tradition.

As those around me celebrate Halloween I try to quietly celebrate Samhain. I know some of you wonder why. What's the point? What am I hoping to achieve by calling it something different?
By calling it something different I hope to shift my family's focus. Like most of the holidays celebrated in America, I don't like the associated rituals that come with Halloween.
Spooky and scary afterlife images are trotted out, but with no mention of how those things apply to the loved ones that may have been lost this year. Death is treated like a joke, with nothing to offer those genuinely curious about that final act. That final act that's so disconnected from the way most American's live their lives, some don't even know what had to die to make their lunch today.
Sending children out begging for plastic wrapped sugar made by large corporations, while wearing costumes mass produced by other large corporations, can you guess who I think really gets the treat of Halloween? All that seems an empty waste of time and money, as there are no American children in need of candy. In fact the opposite could be argued without much trouble. Soaring obesity rates and early onset Diabetes would argue that more of us should be looking at this holiday ritual with a careful eye.

Samhain has traditions that focus more on actual death, as it occurs in the natural world, and specifically how it connects to the cycle of the year. Samhain offers rituals that celebrate the death of the crops that nourished all summer, rituals to remember loved ones who passed, decorations that are made from herbs and other natural local materials. These rituals encourage a healthy view of death, as something natural and and respectful. These rituals encourage a deeper understanding of the cycles of the seasons and how they affect the local flora and fauna. These rituals are very approachable. A bonfire serves double duty, to clean up the garden refuse and to illuminate the darkness that holds sway this time of year. The carving of faces into fall produce, (originally turnips, now pumpkins) to symbolize those that have departed this life, but linger in our thoughts. Ancestor worship as it's called by some anthropologists, is so common in other parts of the world. I sometimes wonder why it's so devoid in our society. Is it because we live longer? Is it because of our obsession with youth and beauty or the other way around, does our lack of connection with the departed lead to our obsession with youth and beauty? I don't know. I do think that if we're ever to live more honest lives, more local lives, we need to reconnect with death. We need to reclaim death as something natural and not to be feared, connected to how we get our food and how we live our lives; something as far removed from free candy as it's possible to be.

We need to reclaim death. Have you thought about your own? Crunchy is hosting a blogroll with the topic of Greening the Dead. Do you want to spend your hard earned money on chemicals to preserve your remains? How about a hermetically sealed box made of metal and plastic? That's what the average 12-15K that most Americans spend on funerals will get you. Then your body full of it's poisons, safely in it's super-fund box, gets crammed into a landfill full of other poison filled corpses. It's not cheap and it's not friendly to the environment.
There are other options of course, but most require a bit of pre-planning on your part as well as the willingness to convey your wishes to those you'll leave behind. Cremation is an option, coupled with a fabric shroud or unfinished wood box, it's not too damaging environmentally speaking. It's also an order of magnitude cheaper.
Green Burial is available in some locations. The body is buried in a manner to encourage decomposition instead of hinder. Costs are closer to those of a traditional burial but the money goes towards conservation of the land instead of fancy funeral trappings.
And then there's the old standby shovel + hole = burial. You might not think it, but 44 out of 50 states preserve families’ rights to bury their own dead, including Iowa.
Or the Tibetan Sky Burial. (Google only if you are serious, as it's not for the faint of heart.)

We're told we can't handle death. We're told we can't handle the death of our food or the death of our loved ones. We're told to let the friendly neighborhood corporation handle messy stuff like that, for the low low price of... :-\
Resist. Trust in yourself and the millions of years of instincts bred into you to successfully navigate death. And yes, I understand that the rules regarding butchering and burial have evolved to protect us. Done incorrectly these practices can result in illness to those around you. The flip side of the coin however shows that, done correctly, these practices can enrich a life. By being more honest about life and death and engaging in those things that the corporations try to claim as their own. After all, a life well lived deserves an end that matches.

As the darkness now draws near
See the cycle of the year.
As the light now goes within
Let the hallows dance begin.


Jon Lorisen said...

I've got just over two hours left in my midnight shift and I started snooping through your old blog posts, lots of interesting stuff - I really enjoyed this post.

My wife has asked me a few times what I would like to do with my body after death, I always say "whatever is cheaper."

I've been to a few funerals and they are not the kind of affair I'd like. Massive money spent, the whole coffin thing, it's crazy. If I can't be thrown into a hole for compost, I'd prefer to be cremated, even if it did cost a little more. I really don't want to have my preserved body taking up space in some graveyard. Of course, since I'm dead, it won't matter too much to me :)

I understand that a lot of people take comfort in visiting a grave; I'd rather have my ashes spread somewhere and have them take comfort in visiting a wonderful coastal area or a mountain.

So are you Wiccan? If you don't mind me asking, I'm being nosy. Saw the posts on handfasting, of course this one on Samhain, etc.

Jennie said...

:-) I know how those overnight shifts are, at least you had internet to help you through.

Hubby and I have talked about it, and we're on the same page as you. Whatever's cheaper, don't preserve us. Don't drag a church into the mess either.

My religious views, are what I like to call Pagan-Atheist. I like the Wiccan holidays. Celebrating the turning of the seasons fits much nicer with my view of the world, and the work that I love. But, I don't believe in the Wiccan gods any more than I believe in the Abrahamic god, or the Hindi pantheon.
Whenever I feel the need for a bit of ceremony, I just pull things I like from pagan and wiccan traditions and cobble something together to suit the occasion and my mood. Hubby was raised pagan, so it meshes well with his comfort zone too.
:-) Have a great week!

Jon Lorisen said...

Raised pagan, how unusual. Must have been interesting. I confess that reading Dies the Fire and the other books in the series by SM Stirling did make some of the Wiccan ceremonies sound fun.

Jennie said...

I loved Dies The Fire, for that very reason. :-) I'm reading another of his right now actually, The Conquistador. So far it's just as excellently written as DTF was.

Jon Lorisen said...

Conquistador was great. Have you read any of his others?

I really enjoyed the Nantucket series, The Peshawar Lancers was fantastic, and his Draka series is just outstanding. The General series that he wrote with David Drake was also outstanding work.

Looking at his list I think I've read just about all his books :)