Hallowe’en is just around the corner. In Vermont, where we stayed recently, there was much evidence of this. Filmy ghosts dangled from every tree, lining the entire Main Street of the nearest town, St. Johnsbury.
There is a plan for the fourth annual Halloween Parade in the town. Many houses had what appeared to be fake cobwebs and witches in pointed hats. And of course, there were pumpkins everywhere (real ones).
OK, so like Valentine’s Day, Halloween has become ridiculously commercialized; I have given in to it myself. I am watching a spooky series on Netflix, The Haunting of Hill House, based on the classic 1959 novel. It’s a family drama, basically, with silences, pauses, tears, eyes widening in horror – and occasional screams (but not too many). Oh, and a suitably creepy house, where the shadows are extra deep and dark. It does not shy away from those emotions of guilt, anger, resentment, love. The family stuff.
I know, Jamaicans are going to start grumbling at this point. Hallowe’en is not a part of our culture. It’s demonic, say many Jamaican Christians. And yet, we love our “duppy stories” of the Rolling Calf, River Mumma and other vivid and terrifying phenomena. All of these are a part of our African legacy. Then on some of our sister islands, there are La Diablesse (of French origin) and Mama Dlo, and that frightening creature that sucks blood and flies around the room, the Soucouyant. In Jamaica, no “great house” (or at least what is left of them) is complete without its resident duppy. Rose Hall in St. James is a classic example and a tourist attraction, to boot. Here’s a Jamaican “duppy story” I wrote two years ago. I think it’s called “speculative fiction.”
The Rolling Calf, with his clanking chains, is really no different than carved pumpkins with grinning toothy faces. It’s all about that “other world” out there – whether you believe in the afterlife or not, or whether you simply don’t know whether it exists.
One house that was particularly well decked out with witches, cobwebs and more was right next to the Mount Pleasant Cemetery just outside the town – a beautiful hillside with tall trees and a number of Civil War graves. Actually, all the cemeteries I saw were beautiful – green, quiet, respectful places with well-kept grass, the occasional flowering bush and carefully planted flags for those who had served in the military or died in battle.
I do confess that I am a little obsessed with cemeteries. When our Jamaican/American Jewish volunteers visited, it was fascinating to join them as they carefully documented each grave site (but tragic to see cemeteries neglected, filled with garbage, gravestones vandalized). I wrote about these absorbing explorations a few times on this blog.
These places tell you so many human stories and so much history. You can ponder over the lives of a child who died too young, or a husband and wife, or a casualty of war. One very new grave that we found in the historic Ayer-Hawkins Cemetery near the house where we stayed in Vermont was festooned with memorabilia, plastic toys, flowers and messages. The gravestone itself bore a photograph of a young man. It was a shrine, remembering a short life and someone who was well loved. Those graves that were missing, however, were those of the original inhabitants, the Native Americans. Perhaps they were in the surrounding forest. However, the Cemetery has a website, with a beautifully sketched map and a list of every person buried there, their names, birth and death dates and the condition of each gravestone carefully recorded. Just as the Jewish volunteers from overseas have done for the cemeteries in Jamaica.
Fine. We reject “demons” and Hallowe’en, but many Jamaicans do seem to pay scant respect to the dead, once the funeral is over and done with. Once they are cemented into a big flat space like Dovecot – somewhere in the middle of St. Catherine – with a flat plaque in the ground, it seems many souls are forgotten. As noted above, a lot of the older cemeteries are almost completely abandoned (the historic May Pen Cemetery is utterly depressing, and probably the most extreme example, but there are others). Only a few, such as the Falmouth Jewish Cemetery, are very well kept. How many people visit their relatives’ graves on a regular basis, to brighten them up with a bouquet or just to remember them? These burial places, despite their often fancy names, are nevertheless bleak places, with hardly a flower in sight – let alone a tree.
I just finished reading a book called Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. It’s quite jolting, with the main characters being the “inhabitants” of Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, Washington. Lincoln is actually Abraham Lincoln’s young son William Wallace Lincoln (“Willie”), who died of a fever at age 11, plunging his parents into a lengthy grieving period and fueling the President’s depression. The “bardo” in the title is a state of existence between death and rebirth, as described in Tibetan Buddhism’s Book of the Dead. There is nothing remotely religious about this novel, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2017 and is described as “experimental.” I should write a review, although it’s hard to know where to start.
Despite the topic, the novel is stunningly full of life, and the love of life. Memories, regrets, and of course grief – but also humour.
I guess that is my point. In the midst of life, there is death. I believe we should recognize and embrace it.
For the sake of our ancestors.