31 October 2012 a post by Karen Wellman

Remembering the dead

Samhain, at the boundary of summer and winter, is a time to look forward and back. As the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer, it is a time to tell stories and remember those who have been important in our lives and who are no longer with us. Tradition says Samhain is a time when the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead is one that can be crossed and spirits of the dead can communicate with the living. Human emotions about death are complicated, so maybe our ancestors who told stories about their dead at Samhain found that, in weaving tales, they had found a way of making sense of those feelings.

old family pictures

The modern festival of Halloween is a time for telling ghost stories and going out trick or treating. It retains the sense of communicating across the boundary of this world and the next at Samhain. Halloween for many people is all about dressing up and having fun, but it scared me silly as a child. So when my children were small I created a family memory book that contained old photos of relatives they had never seen as they had died years before. I retold the family stories about Great-Granddad who worked on the trams and how his daughter had sent her children away to the country in the Second World War. Rather than just make the stories about who did what and when I tried to weave in the less positive bits of the stories together. So I included how angry Grandma was with Granddad when he died young.

In making the stories more elaborate what I was trying to do was honour the complexity of human life and emotion. Maybe that is what our ancestors were doing at Samhain as they told their stories

This can be hard to do when someone has died, especially if they die unexpectedly.  We might feel that we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead and hurt and real injury done by the actions or personality of the departed is buried and resentment festers. Then forgiveness, which is a long term project anyway, does not have a chance to get started.

Or the other extreme is that the deceased is painted black and turned into the person who never had any light in them. That is the easier story.

detail of woven textile

People are multi-tonal – not just black and white cartoon characters.

Like this picture of felted wool there are strands of brightness in even the most ordinary life, strands of where the divine touched them. Where there was love and care; where there was beauty and peace. In some people that light shines brightly but in difficult times discerning where the divine is can be hard.

Retelling, reviewing and telling again the stories of those who have been before can be a way of finding that light especially as we go into the dark months.

A prayer for times of remembering

God of Life and Wholeness
You hold the strands of our lives in your love
Where we see snapshots you see the whole picture
Give us grace to see the good
Give as the courage to face the bad
Be with us when we feel overcome by the dark
Help us find what is light and of you
And bring us healing as the years turn.


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