Why we need to look beyond Halloween

Colourful skulls to celebrate the Day of the Dead

Five minute read

For thousands of years, humanity has used this time of year to remember and feel connected with our dead.

Our founder, Poppy Mardall, explains how she draws inspiration from festivals like Samhain, All Souls’ Day and Dia de Los Muertos, which bring the living and the dead together and encourage all of us to face our own mortality.

Halloween can be fun — but does nothing to bring us close to our dead. It’s the time when Hollywood releases its goriest horror films and children run around with vampire fangs and fake blood dripping from their mouths. If this represents our feelings about death, we have much work to do.

Halloween (31 October)

So should we cancel Halloween? No. I like the way my community comes together at this time, and my three young children would never speak to me again if I did! But I would love to find space for rituals that honour the dead, in addition to the creepy fun of Halloween.

My work at Poppy’s shows me how critical it is to make time to feel close to the people in our lives who have died — both through the funeral immediately after their death, and in the longer term.

We need ongoing opportunities to remember, honour, grieve, and express love for the dead — because our relationships with the dead don’t end when they die.

When someone dies, we go through a painful transformation, as we learn to relate to them without their physical presence. This new relationship needs opportunities and rituals to nurture and honour it.

We also need support to face our own mortality. Each of us knows we’re going to die, but many of us repress that thought. Community rituals allow us to come to that awareness together. Facing our mortality helps us make the most of the time we have here.

This is why, as we approach Halloween, I am looking at rituals that I can draw on to support this positive connection with death.

Samhain (eve of 31 October to eve of 1 November)

The ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain was first recorded in Irish literature in the ninth century but evidence suggests its history goes back many thousands of years.

Marking the end of harvest and the beginning of winter, Samhain is known as a ‘threshold festival’, when the division between this world and the ‘otherworld’ is perceived to be at its thinnest, meaning that spirits could more easily cross over. Households would set a place at the table or by the fire to welcome the dead home.

Modern pagans celebrate Samhain by making shrines to specific ancestors and leaving food and drink outside as an offering. They leave doors or windows open with a candle on the windowsill to guide the dead home.

Allhallowtide (31 October to 2 November)

In the Christian calendar, All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween), All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day come together to form Allhallowtide. This is the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead.

All Souls’ Day is all about remembering and honouring the people in our lives who have died. Although a Christian festival, ancient pagan and indigenous rituals have fused with Christian rituals to make meaning for the people who practise them.

In Guatemala, people write notes to their ancestors and attach them to huge, beautiful kites. In Hungary, they leave lights on and food out to welcome ancestors home. In Sicily, families clean graves and make candlelit altars at home.

These rituals give the people practising them powerful and accessible opportunities to feel close to the dead and acknowledge death as a part of life.

Dia de los Muertos (2 November)

A festival now with global reach, Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, originated in an Aztec festival for the goddess Mictecacihuatl. Known as the Lady of the Dead, she allowed spirits to travel back to Earth to commune with family members.

A candlelit altar (ofrenda), strewn with marigolds is made at home. It is decorated with photographs of the dead, their favourite foods and personal belongings. The light of the altar and the scent of the flowers is believed to guide the dead home.

The community visits the cemetery together with a big feast. The living talk to the dead and new-born babies are brought to be introduced to their dead relatives.

Dia de los Muertos also includes many manifestations of the skeleton to remind the living that death will come to us all — so make the most of life while you can!

What these festivals have in common is providing a dedicated moment in the year for prioritising our relationships with the dead and acknowledging death as part of life. Religious or not, our humanity continues to call us to do this.

How I will be marking this season

In our house, as Halloween approaches, multiple projects are afoot. We are decorating our house with skeletons and pumpkins — I’m gathering sweets ready for the kids in my community when they knock on the door.

I’m also making a simple, non-religious altar, decorated with flowers, candles, and photos of the people in my life who have died. My friend Will, who died so young and so suddenly, will be there — the wound of missing him is still raw. My husband’s grandparents will be honoured with a photo of them dancing in Alexandria in their twenties — I never met them, but they look so in love.

I’m going to plan a meal with my kids, lay out plates for people we miss and use this opportunity to talk about and remember them.

We’ve practised rituals like these for thousands of years because we need them. I believe we still need them today.

During this season, I hope you and your household will find a way to lean into the missing and the remembering, the celebrating and the feeling close.

Read more thought-provoking opinion pieces — What is a funeral for? and why we don’t use euphemisms to talk about death.

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