A burgeoning cart pushed by a corpse-gathering surly man, calling “Bring out your dead!”
Wheels on cobblestones. Wails from suffering humanity. Then someone tries to dump a sickly man onto the cart, but he protests, in a high-pitched voice: “I’m not dead.”
This is one of my favorite scenes in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail; only made better in Spamalot when it becomes a musical number, with the sick man cheerfully singing, “I am not yet dead” and sporting some tremendous jazz hands.
I find this a simple and brilliant combo – one we can take a cue from as we turn our awareness to ghosts, saints, or souls in these last days of October and first days of November. Whether we celebrate the Day of the Dead, Samhain, All Saints Day or All Hallows Eve.
The combo is this: being mindful of death and being fully alive.
And that combo is your FHP activity for this week, should you choose to accept it.
When my grandpap died, I was a high school senior on an overnight trip to a potential school, staying in a dorm room with a young woman who was a few years older and seemed decades cooler than me. She planned to take me to a party that evening, and I was beyond excited at the possibility of unsupervised fun and being in the presence of cute college boys.
I think my mom called my student host’s dorm room, although I’m not sure. This was the early nineties, so I do know cell phones weren’t involved.
Regardless, after I got the news, a jumble of feelings took turns surfacing; some dolphin fins, some shark. Heartbreaking sadness. The desire to go to that party and let loose dancing, maybe even to kiss someone I’d just met. Guilt for feeling those desires when I’d just gotten death news. With my dad’s death not even four years before, anger that it seemed people I loved kept dying.
Now I’d tell my eighteen year-old self that it was okay to feel all of those things, that it was okay for me to be alive even though my grandfather was dead, and my father was gone. That the best way to honor the memory of someone who has died is to live—to dance the dances, kiss the kisses, cry the tears, or shout the fury. All of it, and in an order that won’t always make sense.
I’d also tell her that when she was ready, she could find creative ways to be mindful of and honor the lives of beloved dead. Possibilities other than putting on a black sweater and sitting somberly in the dark with a holy card.
For instance, now I love raising a glass of scotch and orange juice to my dad, saying his name and toasting him at a meal with others. Being mindful of death while being fully alive can be as simple as that.
If you’re craving something a little more focused or involved right now, you can also bring out the dead in slightly more complex ways, with a little ritual.
For instance, you might decide to plan some time with your favorite dead person or people.* Block out an hour or two or three at a time that feels right for you. Choose privacy or include others. How you might structure this:
Open your time.
Light a candle and declare an intention: I.e. “I’m here to reconnect with my dad, to celebrate his life and mine, the way our lives intertwined, the gifts and lessons I’ve received.” Or, simply, “I’m here to reconnect with my dad.”
Engage your senses with memory.
I always seem to think of taste first, and if that’s also your go-to, I recommend concocting and eating food you loved to share with the deceased. For my dad, I might have fried peppers, Italian bread to sop up the juice, and red wine. For my grandma, an onion sandwich: big slices of sweet onion on thick bread slathered with butter, salt and pepper. For my great aunt, sugar-coated spearmint leaves and orange slices. For my grandpap, fresh-from-the-garden tomatoes with salt and pepper.
Other senses help too. You could put on some music that reminds you of your beloved dead. Get out old pictures. Wrap yourself in a blanket or something familiar—I have a pair of my dad’s pajamas I’ve had for years. Light a candle or inhale the scents of the food you’ve made.
Or all of the above. Engaging your senses is a grounding act, so the more, the better.
Have a conversation.
Maybe this is out loud and you, like me, are comfortable talking to yourself because you do it all the time anyway. Maybe this is via writing, and you craft an imagined dialogue between you and your person. Or break out the oil pastels and draw. All you have to do is start with the feeling or the spoken words. “I’m here with you. Let’s talk.”
Take a particular action of being alive, since you’re not dead yet.
You could sing or dance or take some deep breaths. Honor those who have died by enjoying being in your own body. This doesn’t mean you need to “be happy” or “move on.” This just means be and move. Maybe your grief is fresh, and it would be enjoyable for you right now to yell at the top of your lungs because you hate the fact that this person is dead. Or that you never got to say something you needed to say. Then yell because you can.
Close your time.
When you’re done, make sure to say thank you, to the deceased, to yourself, for what you’ve experienced. If you’ve lit a candle, you could blow it out. If you’ve made food, wash some dishes. Simply move, shake, or shimmy out of the ritual and into whatever’s next. You might brush yourself down with your hands, take a shower, or go for a little walk. Choose something to let yourself gently shift out of the conversation in some way.
Whatever you do with your beloved dead, whether a fifteen minute cup of tea with your mom, a five minute dance party with your best friend, or a few hours weeping with your brother, I wish you comfort and ease, balm for your heart and spirit, as you bring out your dead and find new ways to be alive.
*I don’t necessarily recommend the above ritual for your reflections on/with dead people with whom you have some kind of unresolved traumatic or difficult connection. Such activities can surface lots of emotions or insights or memories to process, and having professional support might be advised.