I was a fearful child. My anxiety disorder found numerous ways to manifest itself, but one of those was an overwhelming fear of death and pretty much anything related to the topic. My younger brother’s fascination with things like mummies and skeletons just sent me into a panic, particularly whenever he shoved a picture of mummy or a skull in my face to get a reaction. A trip to the art museum to see a traveling Egyptology exhibit terrified me because, of course, the centrepiece of the collection, at the start of the exhibit, was a mummy. My dad had to take me out while my mom went through with my brothers and then they swapped places so my dad could see it. Halloween was scary, too, the way people decorated their lawns like graveyards and dressed up like witches.
Death and that which accompanies it provoked fear in me. That fear stayed with me into adulthood, though I grew better at managing it. Still, I remember cringing away from a Halloween display in a shop at 18 or 19, trying to explain to a friend who adored Halloween why all the skeletons bothered me. I hated the celebration of the creepy, the dark, and death. It made me deeply uncomfortable.
Being raised Christian didn’t really help matters. Death is both glorified and demonized in that religion. Death is the enemy, and Christ has conquered death, so we’re not supposed to fear it anymore. To die is to pass into the next life, and supposedly, if you believe the right thing, “have Jesus in your heart,” you’ll go to heaven. Otherwise, you’ll go to hell. I tried not to think too much about hell. The thought of there being nothing after death scared me even more. Oblivion being what it is, it’s not as though I would know, but the thought of ceasing to know, just not being, sat with me and kept me awake at night.
The reality, of course, is that we don’t really know what happens to us when we die. We can talk all we want about what happens to our body, but we don’t really know about our consciousness, if there is such a thing as a soul, if we just wink out the way we winked in, if this is it, if we’re reborn into new bodies, if there’s an afterlife, if we become something else entirely. This lack of certainty is probably one of the reasons for the proliferation of religions: some, though not all, purport to tell us what happens next, when we go through this mysterious thing that we all know we must experience.
I still fear death. I think most of us do, one way or another. But someday I will die, and death is as much a part of life as being born. Both are necessary in the world in which we live. And embracing paganism, with all of its uncertainties and possibilities, has made the thought of death easier to live with. Maybe reincarnation is real. Maybe Summerland is real. Maybe Valhalla is real. And maybe it’s not, and maybe I will go to my rest someday and that will be all of my experience done. But death is an intrinsic part of the cycles of nature, and I too am part of nature. I don’t need to be completely terrified in the face of death anymore.
And now Halloween, with its skulls and spiders and darkness, and shining a light into that darkness to frighten away our fears, means a bit more to me. I’m looking forward to my first Samhain as a pagan. We’re doing our annual potluck Halloween party the Saturday before (costumes, mulled cider, sometimes a pinata), so I can have the time to do something for the actual holiday without trying to navigate around a houseful of people. I don’t know what it’ll come to signify to me, but I look forward to finding out.