The Day of the Dead
In Mexico and Latin America it’s best known as El Día de los Muertos, roughly translated as The Day of the Dead. It’s sometimes also called All Souls Day. Roman Catholics and many Protestants call it All Saints Day. It’s traditionally celebrated on November 1st.
The night preceding it is far better known — All Hallows Eve — which has morphed into the more-commonly-celebrated secular holiday Halloween.
But what all these religious and superstitious celebrations have in common as a basic premise is the idea that after people die — after a human body ceases to sustain biological life — a soul that had been animating that body survives the body’s biological death and continues to exist … somewhere, somehow, as something.
Human beings are a cynical lot. If we can tell a story which can scare children around a campfire, or in a theater, or in front of a big or bigger screen — we’ll tell it. So we tell stories about animated corpses and ghosts and Zombies, and take communion with popcorn and Pepsi.
Sophisticated people don’t believe any of this is real. Realistic people — rational thinkers — take death at face value. Whatever is a personality or consciousness or mind within a body is a neurological function of the body’s brain, and when the brain dies that personality or consciousness or mind within that body dies with it. Stories of Heaven or Hell or a Ferryman and the River Styx or Paradise or Valhalla are nothing more than idle chatter, and means nothing to the dead that have no ears to listen anymore and no functioning brains to interpret the noise.
But what if religions and superstitions have it right on one point: that there is a soul and it survives the brain’s death? What if after our brain ceases to function we are still conscious and our consciousness goes somewhere and does something?
That would pretty much change every fundamental premise we use to make decisions about our lives, and organize our societies around, wouldn’t it?
On this question alone lies a chasm of intellectual communication between the secular materialist and the “spiritual” or “religious” person on how they arrive at a set of perceptions, conclusions, and value-judgments which determines what we do while we are alive.
If one truly believes that hijacking a commercial jetliner, killing the pilots, and crashing that jetliner into an office tower not only will transport one’s own soul to Paradise but also that doing so is the only chance the non-believers on that jetliner and in that office tower have of making the journey to Paradise also, then it is not an entirely irrational decision to do so … and if the belief was true regarding action and consequence it would actually be a sweet act of charity.
If handing out poison in Guyana or San Diego transports the drinkers’ souls to Heaven or a spaceship following a comet, then is it murder or a ticket to ride?
The comic playwright, Christopher Durang, in a shockingly funny scene in his 1979 play Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, has a Catholic nun shoot one of her troublesome students, explaining that since he’d just been to confession killing him was the only way he’d ever get to Heaven.
Religions, today, are considered tolerable only when they teach their adherents to act as if the secular materialists have it right — that murder ends a human life.
What would it do for Holocaust memorials at Yad Vashem, in Washington DC, or in Los Angeles, if there were an asterisk next to the name of every Nazi victim that said, “Transported by the Nazis from a Concentration Camp to Heaven”?
Yet Judaism is one of the religions that teaches a belief in life after death. Are Jews supposed to believe that the Nazis victims’ souls survived their murders at the hands of the Nazis, or not?
Politics, as well as common sense, dictates that stories be told that frighten human beings into believing death is permanent. As we learned on 9/11, it’s just darned hard to deter mass killings when the killers believe they’re doing both you and themselves a favor.
But on the Day of the Dead, it’s appropriate to create some doubt in the minds of reasonable people about death necessarily being the end, and at least to ask if some possibility exists that it’s not.