All Souls Day / Day of the Dead

By Kat Liu

Delivered at Firstt UU Church of Second Life

On  0ctober 30, 2008


"The Open Door at Samhain"

Between the heavens and the earth
The way now opens to bring forth
The Hosts of those who went on before-
Hail! We see them now come through the Open Door.
Move beyond the fiery screen, Between the seen and the unseen;
Shed your anger and your fear, Live anew in a new year!

- Unknown Author



"All Souls Day/The Day of the Dead"

When I was six years old, my mother took my brother and me to Taiwan to visit relatives for the first time.  Having lived my only six years of life up until then in the U.S., it was quite a culture shock.  One of the most memorable shocks for me was visiting a Buddhist temple full of spooky gods with multiple arms, eyes, and sometimes heads.  Another memorable shock was seeing the ancestral altar in my great aunt's house.  There, was a picture of my deceased great uncle, along with a tablet bearing his name, on an table with burning candles and incense and fresh flowers.  But more than that, there was food and tea and wine.  It seemed to me as if his picture was watching the family. But it was the food and drinks that got to me most, as if my granduncle were still with us, with a hearty appetite.  As a six year old, it evoked fears of ghosts. This weird culture that my mom had thrown us into was scary.

When I was nine years old, my parents sent me to a conservative Lutheran school, and one of the many things I learned there was that my family engaged in ancestral worship, idolatry.  In so many words, I was informed that my ancestors were in hell, and that my extended family members would shortly be joining them there.

When I was in high school and then college, I came to believe that both the Christian hell and Chinese ancestral worship were just the superstitions of an unenlightened past. The future, based in science, would be free of such nonsense.

Within the span of a few years, I went from fear to disdain to finally indifference. I had no use for ancestral tablets and offerings.


Tomorrow night is Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, followed by All Saints Day on Nov 1st, and then All Souls Day on Nov 2.

As many of you know, what we have now is the result of Christian traditions being overlaid on indigenous traditions.  And so the Celtic new year of Samhain - the end of the light half of the year and the start of the dark half - became All Saints Day.  And the night before it, a time thought to be when the veil between the living and the dead was thinnest, that became Halloween.  But unlike our Halloween, Samhain's eve was not a night of fear (nor crass commercialism, but I digress).

It was instead, a night of celebration.  Returning ghosts of the deceased were not terrifying; they were welcome.

When Christianity moved to Latin America, it mixed with indigenous practices there too.  And so in Mexico, there is the Day of the Dead celebrations on All Souls Day, Nov 2nd.  It used to be a whole month in August; now it's just a couple of days tied around the Christian calendar, but the idea is the same.  On Día de los Muertos, people celebrate, eat pan de Muerto (bread of the dead) and skull shaped candies, and tell joyful stories of family and friends who have passed.  In preparation, they make colorful altars upon which flowers (usually marigolds), photographs, and mementos of the deceased are placed.  And also on these altars, people served the favorite foods of the deceased.

The Chinese also have a Day of the Dead. It takes place in April and is called Ching Ming, which means "clean and just."

On Ching Ming, or Grave-Sweeping Day, people weed and clean the areas around ancestral graves, offer fresh flowers, light incense, and burn imitation paper money for afterlife spending needs.  Participants bow three times with wine cup in hand, then pour the wine onto the ground as an offering.  In addition, the favorite foods of the deceased are also laid out as an offering.

Favorite foods of the deceased...

as if they were still with us, with hearty appetites.


In high school, college and then graduate school, I tried to dismiss such "superstitions" of the past.  But try as I may, I have not been able to dismiss death.  Some people think superstitions arose about ghosts and afterlives because people are afraid of their own dying.  I think that's a rather ungracious interpretation.  I'm not afraid of my own death.  But I am aware of the palpable absence of my loved ones.  Both friends and family have died, some way too soon.  I can no longer talk with my grandparents. Soon I will no longer be able to talk with my parents.  I think people developed the concept of afterlives to remain connected to those they love and have gone.  And to feel connected to something bigger than just ourselves.

A world view that says that life is nothing but a complex set of biochemical reactions, and death but the cessation of those reactions does not provide much comfort for the loss of a friend or loved one.  If we're just individual bodies that pop into existence for 70 some odd years, give or take a couple of decades, and then pop out again, what is the point?

There is a song that was introduced in the new hymnal supplement. The words go:

Where do we come from?
What are we?
Where are we going?

Age old existential questions.  The questions of religion.

For me, the daughter of immigrants, who has never known any of my ancestors beyond my grandparents, I have felt cut-off at the roots. "Free" to be anything I want in this land of opportunity, but unanchored. Rootless.  I have learned that a lot of Americans feel this way, whether they are the children of immigrants or not.  Once in a while, I think, it would be nice to believe that my deceased ancestors are keeping me company.

And recently, I've come to realize that they are. 

My paternal grandmother died when I was thirteen.  I have not seen her face since, except in photographs, nor heard her voice, except in memory. But she is with me every day.  I am especially aware of her omnipresence during the winter holiday season, which is fast approaching.  Every year, I amaze my colleagues by cutting paper snowflakes in perfect six-fold symmetry.  It was Nai Nai (or grandma) who taught me how to do that.

When I look in the mirror, I see my mother's face, which is my grandfather's face.

And even tho I've never met my great-grandparents, I know that my Dad's morning sneezing fits, which my brother has inherited, must have come from one of them, and from a great-great grandparent before that.

And that my Dad's deep sense of duty to country, even at one's own expense, comes from teachings handed down for generations.

Through the study of Buddhism, the religion with the many armed gods that had scared me witless as a child, as well as science, as well as personal reflection, I've come to understand interdependency.  Not interdependency as an ecological concept - protect the earth, etc - but all pervasive metaphysical interdependency.  EVERYTHING arises out of other things. We do not, it turns out, just pop into existence and back out. We are because of those who came before. Connected with them in one web of interbeing.


All Souls Day is preceded by All Saints Day.  The latter is just for those who are seen as worthy enough to get into heaven.  The former is for everyone ALL Souls.  I think it's fitting that Día de los Muertos, that "pagan" holiday of ancestral "idolatry" is on All Souls Day.

Last week I asked my father to take out his old calligraphy brushes and write the names of all four of my grandparents.  You see, I'm going to take digital pictures of the writing and turn them into ancestral tablets in Second Life for my little Chinese temple.  Then I will light virtual candles and incense and place virtual food for them to partake.  And when I do it, it won't be because I believe their virtual ghosts are hungry.  It will be to honor that part of them that has made me, my brother, and cousins who we are.

Amen. Ashay. Blessed be. and Namaste.

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