Our neighbor’s yards have been filled with signs of the season these past several weeks. They include white ghost-like specters hanging from trees, scattered skeleton parts on lawns, mock tomb stones and the endless variety of orange-lighted pumpkin carvings-some real and others plastic.
Halloween is a secular recognition by costume and irony-trick or treat-of the final reality that we all share.
Our neighbors invite us to join with them around an open, outdoor fire pit with the greeting of “Happy Halloween!” Adults accompany children dressed as multiple characters on their door-to-door hunt for sweets and show.
Yet Halloween is about death’s reality-sort of. One of the most popular poems in England is Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. It captures the haunting challenge of life observing death.
Published in 1751, the narrator uses the setting of a church’s graveyard to mediate on the inevitable fate of everyone, whether rich or poor, known or unknown, skilled or day laborer. It begins:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
The poet then enters the churchyard cemetery:
Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,
The swallow twitt’ring from the straw-built shed,
The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.
The remainder of the poem’s 32 stanza’s is a meditation on the democracy of death no matter one’s station in life. From the poor to the powerful.
Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
The complete poem can be found here.