Hinterlands between the living and the dead

Charles 1 Comment

We didn’t cover the Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead celebrations on 1 & 2 November. Perhaps that was an oversight. It’s a colourful and intriguing festival of great interest to Westerners. Those from cultures influenced by Protestantism tend to be a bit tongue-tied in their relationships with their dead.

The Dia de los Muertos is much envied by those who feel that their own culture has forgotten how to commemorate the departed. But is it culturally informative, or is it no more than a cultural curiosity?

Held to coincide with the Feast of All Souls, the Dia de los Muertos is the result of the incomplete colonising of a pagan festival by militant Catholics. Its origins are Aztec and it possesses a quality of incoherence which seems not to bother anyone very much. In its original Aztec incarnation the Dia expressed the belief that the living and the dead co-exist. Christian teaching, on the contrary, tells us that our dead go far, far away.

Our own Hallowe’en is, of course, the product of another such marriage of incompatibles, in this case between Christian All Souls and the pagan Samhain, held at that time of the year when the door to the Otherworld opens wide enough to allow the souls of the dead to return for a brief time. Again, not at all Christian.

In an increasingly secular society, where the spectrum of spiritual beliefs is very great, it is useful to have the examples of other cultures to plagiarise and adapt – repurpose, to use the modern idiom. We can probably expect to see a growth in the variety of commemorative observances as people increasingly find the courage to do whatever it is they feel they need to do no matter what anyone else might think.

Maurice Saatchi, for example, breakfasts every day with his dead wife, Josephine Hart, at her grave. He’s not a fan of the moving-on/closure school of grieving. He says, “In my view, to move on is a monstrous act of betrayal and to come to terms with — I think I’d call that an act of selfishness.”

Saatchi’s wifes’s death has even enabled him to redefine his own identity: “The reality of it is that she is me, I am her, we are one . . . I am Josephine Hart, I can put it no stronger than that. It is no different now from what it has always been; we have always been one person.”

The on-trend hinterland between the living and the dead is currently that occupied by zombies. Of ancient African origin, contemporary portrayals of zombies are derived from the slave culture of Haiti, where, according the Amy Willentz, ‘the only escape from the sugar plantations was death, which was seen as a return to Africa, or lan guinée (literally Guinea, or West Africa) … The zombie is a dead person who cannot get across to lan guinea,’ and is thereby condemned to an eternity of backbreaking toil in the sugar plantations under the rule of cruel overseers.

Wilentz goes on: ‘There are many reasons the zombie, sprung from the colonial slave economy, is returning now to haunt us. Of course, the zombie is scary in a primordial way, but in a modern way, too. He’s the living dead, but he’s also the inanimate animated, the robot of industrial dystopias.’

Leaving aside industrial dystopias (together with ghosts and angels), let’s finish by considering the living dead – those kept alive by modern medicine; those who inspire all the debates we’re having these days about assisted dying.

The Liverpool Care Pathway has come under fire in recent months. Doctors have been prescribing it without consulting some families. Hospitals have been incentivised to apply it to living dead people in order to effect economies in healthcare.

The Liverpool Women’s NHS Foundation Trust received £1.03m for doing just that in the last financial year.


  1. Charles

    Wow! rather a lot there Charles. Not sure where to start.
    Appropriation….I’m not so sure that its a bad thing. Every religion that I know of (which is one or two) and every culture does it pretty much all the time. We take from the Other that which is useful or meaningful to us. On the whole, its a policy that works well, especially when we do it in the understanding that we are using it in a slightly different way or giving it a slightly different meaning.

    Neo-Paganism (I speak to some extent as an insider here) has appropriated much of the symbolism and ideology of All Souls Day. While there was a Celtic (another horrible word) festival called Samhain) which may have been the New Year, I have yet to be convinced that there is any historical, literary or archeological evidence to connect it with the ancestors. As it exists at the moment it is a Neo-Pagan invention which borrows much from Catholicism. Does that matter? Not in the least. It fulfils a deep felt psychological need in the modern era for many people. I celebrate it and I celebrate the Day of the Dead. My jury is still very much out on individual survival of death, but in a way that is irrelevant to the significance that remembering and welcoming my ancestors, genetic and ideological has for me. So I say borrow away as long as what you do fulfils a need and serves a function. To woefully misquote a hero of mine (although I suspect he would have approved of the sentiment) ‘Have nothing in your psyche that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’…but have anything you want that fulfills those criteria!

    I’ll leave zombies and care pathways for another day!


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