The secrets of evolution are time and death. — Carl Sagan
The wind rustles the branches of the trees causing leaves to fall, forming a colorful veil in the autumn air. Children walk along the sidewalk, kicking the leaves, laughing. The dying leaves of the trees are glorious, and their dance to the ground is urgent and joyful. Yet, their falling signifies their end, and the beginning of the dormancy of the trees. Life and death are bound together. Samhain is the eighth of the Celtic holidays. It is the night when it is said the veil between life and death is thin. Autumn is a time of harvest, and Samhain is the final harvest. We feel the closeness of death as winter approaches. Plants die or go dormant. It is not surprising that we might find ourselves reflecting on death as we go into winter. Yet, as with so many cultures, we approach this reflection with color, beauty and wild celebration.
Here in the US, we dress up in costumes and party. We use themes of death to decorate our homes. We get together and bob for apples or play other harvest games. We decorate jack’o’lanterns to symbolically scare away evil spirits. We take our children trick’o’treating. We pass out candy and treats to other miniature goblins. Our children come home and laughingly pour out their loot, share and trade. There are school parties and family parties. Yet with all the fun, there is also a more serious side to Samhain.
The veil between life and death is thin. Summer and winter. Strength and weakness. Past and future. Many religions have stories that are told about what happens in death. Many cultures focus on this aspect of the “veil” between life and death, as a window into what may or may not lie beyond death, but there is another aspect of the “veil.”
That is, of course, the fact that death is a very real, tangible part of life. It is not just ghosts and goblins and ghost stories. It is a reality that is difficult for the oldest adult to contemplate and yet something that the youngest child may already have experience with: starting with the reality that nothing can bring back the accidentally squashed bug, or more emotionally, the family pet. These lie behind the festivities is this reality.
Samhain is a time of remembrance. It is a time to honor the dead. We take a moment to miss our dead loved ones. We share memories and also how our dead loved ones now live through us and those around us. We celebrate how our dead loved ones have shaped our lives. For our family, this last is key. When we lose someone we love to death, they are not gone from our memories. The way they touched and changed others around them continues to affect those lives. We hear the voices of those who died in our own voices and in those of our children. This is most clear with those we have known personally but now are gone. Yet, we are also affected by those who have gone from the living deep into our past. Samhain is an opportunity to remember those gifts, to reflect on what we have gained as human beings from ancient Ancestors that have gone long before us, both human and non-human. It is a time of gratitude, but also a time to commit. How can we use these gifts to change the world for the better?
It is this process of remembrance, reflection, gratitude, and promise that shapes this holiday for our family. First, several weeks prior to Samhain, we change our dinner grace from our usual set of graces to the Samhain Grace. For the Samhain Grace, we name, thank, and appreciate a specific Ancestor before dinner. We start in early October with the beginning of the Universe with the Big Bang (or Great Radiance), the formation of Stars, Galaxies and elements, proceeding through animal evolution, to recent Ancestors and loved ones. We have cards which we’ve made for each Ancestor, and these are attached to the wall, in order, as they are thanked – so that when Samhain arrives, all of them are up and in order. You can download, print, and use these cards for your family if you like. The Ancestor cards can be found at http://naturalpagan.org/kidspirit/index.html. There is also a link to creating cosmalas or a set of beads that represent the history of the universe from the Big Bang forward.
Leading up to Samhain, we decorate the house both inside and out. Our decorations are fairly traditional, though we tend to choose ones that are more fall themed or symbols of death, like gourds, leaves, jack ‘o’ lanterns, tombstones, skeletons, ghosts, etc. We avoid things that dramatize torture and gore. Our objective is to acknowledge and respect death and to celebrate the memory of those before, not to focus on the macabre. We also take time during this season to celebrate our cultural heritage. For instance, our kids have Anishinaabe ancestry through Jon, and we are near enough to the local Anishinaabe community to take part in the Spirit Feast for the Ancestors of the tribe and connect directly with this heritage.
After trick-or-treating, we hold a ritual of remembrance and gratitude for the dead in our stone circle. As the children have gotten older, we have been able to do more with this, but even when they were younger, this ritual is one where the children can participate. We light candles in a circle, either on stands or held in hand as the children become old enough for this. The first candle is for the earliest Ancestors: the Stars and the Elements. Each candle moves forward from there. We and the kids name Ancestors or Gifts that match the time in the story. Because they have spent the weeks leading up to Samhain naming and appreciating each, the children are able to contribute all the way back to the beginning. We end with remembering those loved ones that we have lost this year or recently. For instance, this year we will remember the passing of our seventeen year old dog, Spirit of the Wind.
Finally, in terms of Deep Time, Samhain is a time to represent endings: in particular, extinctions. Extinction is a fundamental part of evolution. Asteroid impacts and megafaunal extinctions are tied with the death that awaits each of us, but also the life that is made possible and that flourishes after. This includes the mass extinction 65 million years ago, which led to the deaths of many species, but also to the explosion of other surviving species.
As we approach Samhain, may you feel the love of our billions of Ancestors.
About the Authors: Jon and Heather Cleland Host
We are assemblages of ancient atoms forged in stars – atoms organized by history to the point of consciousness, now able to contemplate this sacred Universe of which we are a tiny, but wondrous, part.
Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997. He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature. He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University. Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog at evolutionarytimes.org). Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality. He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.
Heather is a parent and a scientist raising her four children to explore the world through scientific understanding and with spiritual appreciation of the Universe. She has a Master of Science degree in Physics from Michigan State University, a Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Michigan, and a Bachelor of the Arts degree in English Literature, also from the University of Michigan. She teaches physics as an adjunct instructor at Delta College, runs the Math Mania program at a local elementary school, has worked at Dow Corning as an engineer and at NASA as an intern, and she has led science outreach workshops for K-12 students through joint programs between NASA and the University of Michigan. She is a naturalistic non-theist, whose faith has been shaped by her childhood within the Episcopal Church, her adult membership in the Unitarian Universalist church, and through Buddhist meditation. She has a passion for bringing science and spirituality to everyone in a fun way, both for her own family and for the wider community of the Earth. She is a co-author with Jon Cleland-Host of Elemental Birthdays: How to Bring Science into Every Party.