I don’t do creepy.
This is a well-established fact in my household, which manifests as veto power over a wide range of television shows and movies and a startle response that’s a downright danger to those around me. But this All Hallows’ Eve, as I gear up to oversee all-ages worship and Trunk-Or-Treat the day before, I’m faced with the first occasion of needing decorations and a costume for, well, possibly the first time in my adult life. Personally, I’m thinking it will involve cats (my pack of Sunday Schoolers would be unsurprised!), but when I think about the spookiest stories, well, the Bible’s got all the makings of a haunted house, ghost stories, and urban legends rolled into one.
In the Episcopal Church’s Book of Occasional Services, the order for All Hallows’ Eve includes a choice of several of these stories, some better known – the Valley of the Dry Bones from Ezekiel, for example – while others I’m rather less fluent in, like the Witch of Endor from Samuel, or the War in Heaven from Revelation. And that last one has dragons! Clearly we all need to be spending more time in church, possibly followed by a trip to the cemetery or a memorial garden, to mark Halloween.
Now, cemeteries and the like are sensitive places. Many parents avoid taking their children to them, especially when they’re young. Parents often exclude children from funerals and otherwise try to shield them from death, and yet we know this isn’t actually possible. In Godly Play, in fact, we confront death, one of the core existential limits that we all live with, from early childhood. Sarah and Abraham die and are buried under the Oaks at Mamre. Jesus dies on the cross. We speak of holy people like Martin Luther King, Jr. who was killed for speaking out and acting in the name of justice. We recognize that death can be simply that of old age or it can be violent. And so why would we not visit final resting places for All Hallows’ Eve and for the great Allhallowstide Triduum that includes All Saints’ and All Souls’?
I don’t do creepy, but I do dwell on and with death. As a young child, my family let me help in the preparations for funerals. They welcomed my participation in this holy work, and I remember it as mysterious and fascinating in its way. It’s not the right approach for every family, certainly, and ideally it’s not a question you would have to contend with, but it’s common enough. My middle sister, substantially younger than I am, made countless cemetery pilgrimages as a young child, often with craft projects in hand to share with our late grandfather, who died when she was three. Taping a Groundhog’s Day craft to his headstone was as natural a way of remembering and connecting with him as looking at family pictures or hearing stories about him from me or our mom.
Most churches don’t have the bandwidth for too many extra services for special remembrances and feast days, so many of us may not have easy access to an All Hallows’ Eve service, and even if you did, with young children, it’s easy for trick-or-treating to take precedence. But you don’t need an entire service or a priest to appreciate this day, and what it marks for us as Christians, more fully. You just need to carve out a little time around your family’s sacred spot, in a backyard around a fire, or anywhere else where you feel centered. Choose a reading, sing a simple song, tell a story about someone you love who is no longer with us or about a saint who has a special significance to your family. If liturgy in the broadest sense is the work of the people, that work will vary and shift to fill your changing needs.
I don’t do creepy, but death on its own isn’t inherently creepy or scary. It’s just part of our great, shared story. Visiting with death, then, particularly when we are not wrapped up in immediate grief, can be an extraordinary way of grappling with the pain and sadness that often accompany it. In All Hallows’ Eve, the Church gives us a tool for encountering death in this way. So sure, grab your costumes and candy, but find that place of pause amidst it all. All Hallows’ Eve offers us an invitation unlike anything else in our culture. What might we discover by accepting that offer, this opportunity to see death as nothing more or less than it is?