Maybe there should be a Grinch to steal Halloween. I still don’t understand its appeal. Driving the suburbs of Los Angeles you can see front yards made to resemble graveyards. “But Halloween is so much fun!” they say. It depends how you celebrate it, but Halloween seems odd in today’s climate. Although the pandemic led to a drop in teen massacres due to school closures, suicidal thoughts increased amongst adolescents, and the investigation is still open on the tragedy of Alec Baldwin’s smoking gun.
If you want to deck the halls with morbid symbols, then go for it. Why kiss someone beneath a sprig of mistletoe when you can have a smooch under a hangman’s noose?
Maybe the celebrations aren’t so bad, especially if they establish a healthy relationship with death, which they don’t. One of my teachers at drama school said that “Britain still has two taboos that we don’t talk about: death and money.” Now I’m not bragging, but Jews do death pretty well (but no comment on the topic of Jews and money). I have fond memories of loving family shiva gatherings in the nights following the funerals of elderly relatives. Stories are told, tea is drunk and cake is eaten. The smashing of a glass at a Jewish wedding connects with the idea that there is always a dose of sadness in a happy event. The opposite can also be true, even in the most tragic of circumstances, if only because that iota of happiness can be seen through the support of a loving community.
At the shiva of my maternal grandmother Nana Phyllis, we mourned one of the best people we had known. I also lamented that she couldn’t join us that evening, because she would have loved it.
At the shiva of my maternal grandmother Nana Phyllis, we mourned one of the best people we had known. I also lamented that she couldn’t join us that evening, because she would have loved it. Nana would have been especially proud of one of her young grandchildren who was playing with a couple of toys, because when an older relative commented that it looked fun, the grandchild immediately started negotiations and sold it for cash. Maybe death and money do go together, aside from the touchy subject of contested wills.
I have more fond memories of walking alongside Nana at family stone settings—what Americans call “unveilings”—which usually took place a year after the funeral. It was a poignant time with Nana and she would sometimes make a joke about how after she had gone, she would like me to throw an orchid into her grave since it was her favorite flower given to her by my late grandfather, after whom I was named. I would respond to her that throwing flowers into graves is chukas hagoyim, a non-Jewish custom. Instead I bought her orchids while she was alive, which always made her smile.
Family secrets can also be uncovered. When I gave the eulogy at the shiva of my paternal grandmother, Sadie Freed, I announced that I was about to reveal a piece of classified information that Grandma had kept hidden her entire life. I then proceeded to share the top-secret recipe for Grandma’s apple pie. As it happened, the recipe list was fairly disappointing since it basically consisted of store-bought pastry, apples and sugar, with a special ingredient of a generous spoonful of jam—more sugar. Even so, it didn’t affect our fond memories of family teatime sitting around the dining table and experiencing the happiness that stemmed from the ingestion of glucose, leading to a prompt release of insulin into our bloodstream.
If it floats your boat to use October 31st as an excuse to dress up as a corpse and decorate your home like a morgue, then why not capitalize on the opportunity and throw in a bit of “death education” for good measure? Since passing over is a part of life that most people are scared of, why not get comfortable with the inevitably of it and finally dissolve that fear? The animated film “Coco” explores the Mexican tradition of Día de los Muertos, celebrating the memory of deceased ancestors, and last year’s “Soul” was another animated movie that explored the afterlife. The end is coming for all of us, but hopefully not for a while. Happy Halloween, whatever you’re doing, and raise a glass to life. L’Chaim.
Marcus J Freed is an actor, writer and marketing consultant. www.marcusjfreed.com @marcusjfreed