When people talk about the Victorian era they generally mention the cultural embarrassment that surrounded the subject of sex. Generally when people make this point they are trying to show how repressed we were in times past, especially when they compare it to the mostly open way that we now view sex.
However, in making this point they miss out something quite important; the people of the Victorian era weren’t more repressed than we are today, they were simply repressed about different things.
While they certainly were quiet on the subject of sex they were open about another important topic; death.
The Victorians had many elaborate customs surrounding death (one that I’m especially interested in is memento mori photography) all of which were geared to help them accept and deal with loss. For a culture with a high mortality rate being open and realistic about death was important for people to be able to accept loss and move on with their lives.
As mortality rates have dropped death has turned into a taboo subject for us, it’s replaced sex as the subject that we can’t talk about.
A while ago I was giving a talk on the Ancient Celts and their festivals, on covering the subject of Samhain someone in the audience asked me why I thought Samhain was an important festival (if not the MOST important festival.)
I replied that Samhain is a festival that celebrates death- the only thing that is truly inevitable for us all, it was important to the Ancient Celts as they lived in a fairly volatile and war centred community, as well as obviously having mortality rates that were much higher than today, so death was a huge and common part of life.
Having a festival solely about death was and is very important. It takes the fear the away from it and helps us to understand, it gives us a day when we can remember those we’ve lost and grieve for them. We live in a society that is terrified of death, we seem to think that there’s only one way to react when someone dies and no-one knows how to react around those who’ve been recently bereaved, we don’t talk about someone once they’ve died and we’re all afraid of the inevitable darkness.
We shouldn’t be.
I love Samhain and I think it’s important because it cuts away all the crap surrounding death and bereavement. It lets us grieve, it lets us think and it lets us come to terms with the fact that everything ends, everything dies if we live our lives afraid of the end then we’ll never truly enjoy them. I hate the way that people don’t want to talk about someone who’s died- I can’t talk about my friend or my Auntie or my Grandma or anyone that I love who’s died because it instantly makes whoever I’m talking to clam up and become uncomfortable. I never even talk about how they died or any of the events surrounding that, I’ll just mention something innocuous about them- but even that seems to be too much for most people.
We can’t ignore the dead, they have a place in our lives- for better or worse. We are more than physical beings, our lives all leave footprints even when we’re gone, and ignoring the pain of bereavement won’t help anyone.
Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that the people of the past were ignorant- but I think in the case of the Ancient Celts and Samhain and the Victorians with their elaborate death ceremonies we’re definitely in danger of moving in the wrong direction. Death is now a less common part of our lives, and whilst that’s definitely a good thing it also feels like we’re trying to minimise and wipe it out of our lives altogether
We can’t do this, we can’t ignore death- when I say it like that it seems ridiculously obvious, but we still try don’t we? Things don’t get better by being ignored, they need to be dealt with.
And that’s why Samhain is important.