I just moved to New England, and right across the street from my house is the signature old cemetery, with graves from the 18th century, replete with inscriptions carved with long descending esses (‘God helps thoſe who help themfelves’) and soul effigies.
Soul effigies are those odd-looking carvings of faces at the tops of graves, somewhere between alien and angel. They can be surrounded by vegetation, pinwheel-spirals, wings, long curvetted lines that look like the last exhalation of breath. They represent the soul of the individual mortal who lies in the grave. And the graves often face East so the person will rise in the direction of the Sun, for the Last Judgement. The oldest part of the graveyard by my home is full of these, moss deep and thick as plush on the ground between them. The graves come in clusters of relationship: men and their ‘conforts,’ one family with three young sons who perished in the same fire. There is a sense in walking the graves of everyone’s humanity, however far away. The graves assume you don’t know the story, so they tell you, and give you things to imagine: the silent struggles of a father trying to fulfill the role of patriarch to his family; a girl sitting at the bedside of her sick sister, knowing she might not survive.
The New England graveyards have an austere solemnity, very different from a recent stroll I took with my sister through my Italian hometown’s Catholic cemetery, in which we engaged in garrulous and lively gossip about the dead people whom we had known: the rumors that the local nightclub owner had been in the mob because he made frequent trips to Chicago, our grandfather’s arriviste cousin whom he always griped about, why was this gentleman nicknamed (carved on his grave!) ‘Cheezy’? But we did this with a similar sense of warmth and compassion. I think the souls of the dead don’t mind being gossiped about, because it means you remember them.
There is a day specifically for gossiping about souls, after the dark intensity of Samhain has passed: All Souls Day, on the Catholic calendar, is a quiet little day at the end of the Hallowe’en cycle: there is All Hallows’ Eve, stolen from pagans; All Saints Day, rebranded from pagans, and then the sweet and humble All Souls Day, on 2 November. It takes a full three days to cycle from fairies and ghosts through ascended masters to land at last on the feast of mortal human souls. It arrives quietly at the end of the cycle, draws it to a close.
As a fire holiday, Samhain is such an explosion of energy it would be hard to put it to rest in one day. What is sweet and dear about All Souls is that it is supposed to be a time to talk to people you are not sure are saints. These are all the people in all cemeteries, whether they are represented as mysterious soul-effigies and the photographic cameo insets of old Italians. There is a relief in their not being saints, because we aren’t either, but mere humans: all people who lived the messiness of loving and incarnated life, with its joy and also with its loss.
I was whinging to my friend Lucie recently about loss, about not wanting to get hurt in my life. I said I wished I could do detachment better. That’s crap, she spat. We all get hurt. Detachment is for people who don’t want to get hurt. That’s cowardice. You are alive and part of being alive, its richness and its crazy beauty, is the ability to feel feelings. Another of my friends, Winifred, has as her mantra, Relationships are not for cowards. Fear is the heart of love. I heard both of my friends, unbeknownst to one another, say these things on the week before Samhain, synchronistic echoes of each other, at the same time that two friends of mine lost grandmothers, one lost a mother, and a dear old cat friend from a past life also left the world. More beings leave now because the passage is easier when the veil between the world is thin, but that means that this can also be a sad part of the year.
As much as I do not relish the pain of loss, I would not sacrifice the love that it is proportionate to. If I had not cared, I would never be able to feel grief or regret. The world is guided by saints but made by souls. And the secret is, the souls are the saints, because they are the ones who give our lives value, they are the difference between abstraction and practice. So on this day before the veil thickens again as though someone added flour to it I say:
To all those whom we have loved, to our beloved dead, to the many sorrows that we feel in missing you: you were and are a blessing to us. Because of you we have texture. Because of you we have character. Because you confronted life as we have to, as we do, as part of being alive.
Love is not for cowards. There is a continuing revelation that does not end with Christianity or Buddhism, but is elaborated and refined through our collective experience, all souls on this earth.
To all souls, blessed be and love!