The Triduum of Death

Sunset at Ragged Rock (Big Sur), CA. Original photo by D. Bridge/copyrighted

Of all of the holidays in the social life of the United States there are two that seem to be the most ubiquitous.  There is no escaping the celebrations of Christmas and Halloween.   A common lament often heard starting around the beginning of September is the presence of holiday decorations in stores as they gear up for sales of holiday items.  This is indicative of the commercialization and secularization of these holidays which are celebrated by many people who either do not know or have no interest in their origins. Both of these holidays in particular are currently Christian (although not necessarily historically so) but, as a result of secularization, are celebrated by people of many faith traditions without an understanding of their religious origins.

The pinnacle celebration of the Christian liturgical annual cycle is Easter.  Liturgically, Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.  (There is a whole lot to be  unpacked about this, but that is for another writing. ) My point in bringing up Easter here is to introduce the word triduum – which derives from Latin and means “three days”.  Liturgically, a triduum consists of three days, ending on the day of a celebrated holiday, which in this  case would be Easter Sunday.  Easter is the Christian holiday where the word triduum is used to describe the time from Holy Thursday evening through Easter Sunday. As such, there may be some people who are at least familiar with the word.

What, you might be asking, does this have to do with Halloween?  What many may not be aware of is that Halloween is actually the first day of a triduum that includes Halloween,  All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.  All Saints’ Day is celebrated in the Catholic liturgical year on November 1st each year.  The evening before the day of a holy day such as All Saints’ is considered a vigil for the following day. The word hallow means “holy”, and saints are considered to be holy – or hallowed. The day before November 1 is, obviously, October 31 and is the evening before November 1, thereby making it all hallowed evening which has been truncated to Halloween (with evening abbreviated as e’en).  So, what we now celebrate as a stand-alone holiday of Halloween originated as the vigil for the Feast of All Saints.

Originally, All Saints Day was first celebrated on May 13 in 609 CE when Pope Boniface the IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome as a church in honor of the Virgin Mary and all Roman martyrs.  Pope Gregory III later expanded the day to honor all saints (not just martyrs) and moved the observance of the feast from May 13 to November 1. (The Roman Catholic Church added All Souls’ Day on November 2 in the year 1000.  This move caused the church’s Feast of All Saints to coincide with the Celtic celebration of Samhain (pronounced sow-in) with October 31 being the celebration of the end of the time of harvest and November 1 the beginning of a new year.  There is speculation that this move to coincide with the Celtic holiday was intended to Christianize the Pagan world.  Be that as it may, the celebration of these two festivals overlapped and evolved to what we now celebrate as Halloween.

In the early church this time from October 31 through November 2 was referred to as The All Hallowtide Triduum – so here we are back to that word triduum (as of 1962 this observance has taken on a lesser value than it had had previously). I had not been aware of the use of  this word in relationship to Halloween until researching for this writing.  However, over the  past decade or so, I had begun to think of Halloween as a triduum. 

While I was doing volunteer work in a hospice I found myself reflecting deeply on life and death and I was reminded of the ecclesial meaning behind the two days after Halloween.  I was also doing research about aging at that time and experienced the death of several people in my life.  This reawakened for me a consideration of my continued relationship with people I have known who have died as well as my ancestors who I have not known.  Through looking to my own heritage which includes both Roman Catholicism and Celticism I rediscovered the feasts of All Saints and All Souls which were now imbued with new, deeper meaning for me.  In so doing, I also reoriented  my understanding of Halloween to include its connection to these two feasts  days. I found myself creating what I was calling my own Halloween Triduum. I admit to being humbled in discovering that I wasn’t so clever after all with my take on this three-day observance!  However, I am encouraged to find that my own inner wanderings have led me to experiences rooted in archetypal concepts, or concepts in archaic forms of innate human knowledge resulting in innate behaviors, passed down from our ancestors.

For about the last decade or so, I have been observing this time of year with its thinning of the veil between past lives, this life, and the next life.  It has made me more aware that I exist but for a moment of time in an innumerable succession of ancestors who have gone before me and descendants who will follow. I am, in this moment, the sum total of thousands – and aspects of me, in this moment, will flow forward in thousands more.  Historically, the prayers of the R. C. Church offered the evening before All Saints’ Day were in preparation for the festival the following day.  What we now celebrate as Halloween was originally the preparation for the next  day’s celebration of All Saints’ Day.  The evening was spent trying to “trick” spirits that were deemed to be able to cross through that “thin veil” and to avoid coming under their influence.  Traditionally, All Saints’ Day was instituted as a day of celebration and reflection upon the Saints of the R.C. Church.  The following day, November 2, was named All Souls’ Day and was/is the day set aside to annually recall  those who were considered to be in purgatory (back when it was a concept talked more about than it is today) and to pray for them to move on to heaven.

This particular triduum that comes at the end of the growing season in the northern hemisphere and announces the beginning of the new year in Celtic tradition is a time to focus on human mortality and to face it squarely head on.  In today’s culture, people vigorously embrace Halloween with little regard, or, more likely, little knowledge, of its context.  In the original order of things, Halloween was simply the lead up to All Saints’ and All Souls’ days.  In these times, few appear to be concerned with anything beyond Halloween itself.  

Over several decades I have studied varying religions and participated in a number of spiritual initiations. Attention to ancestors is found globally. This is how an archetype works: it involves a shared lived experience in its felt sense. The feeling itself is the same across cultures and geography, but these same cultures and geographical settings result in a variety of ways of expressing this experience.  Attention to the honoring of elders and ancestors varies by ritual and expression, but what remains a constant throughout is the primary focus on those who have died. This felt connection between the living and the dead is archetypal in nature.

I am of the thought that the way in which we relate to and with the spiritual world is most authentic when it originates within us and then radiates outward. There are times when taking something from outside of us, from a particular teacher or teaching, can be helpful.  I think this is especially true of group ceremony and ritual. Over a period of years I leaned into this All Hallowed Triduum and approached it in differing ways until I have found a rhythm that works for me. I begin on Halloween night with a sort of “gathering in” of those I know who have died, opening a sort of a circle of energy that holds us.  Then, for the next two days I did not want to continue the idea that I had any possible knowledge of who went to heaven and who went to purgatory.  Instead, on November 1 I focus on the people who have left this existence within the previous year.  It is a rather arbitrary cutoff, although there are some cultural traditions that teach that the soul takes about a year to get its bearings once it has left the body. November 2 is a time to bring into the circle all the others I have known who have moved on and to reflect on the interweaving of all these lives.  Finally, there is a sending on of all who have been before while simultaneously asking a blessing on all who are yet to come and then the closing of the circle.

I have intentionally given a simple outline of how I approach The Triduum of Death (or The Halloween Triduum) because my purpose is not to suggest that anyone do what I do. Rather, it is my hope that it gives the reader pause to consider that there is more to Halloween than decorations, costumes, parties and trick-or-treating.  I do not suggest that there is anything wrong with these things only that there are deeper meanings that have been forgotten as a result of commercialization and secularization. Cultural traditions around the globe include the tending to those who have lived before us.  It is my hope to raise consciousness of what has been lost and how one might go about reclaiming a deeper understanding of life in order to live more deeply. It may be somewhat ironic, but it has been my experience that cultivating a relationship with death engenders a deeper relationship with life.  

You are invited to add your own reflection - I look forward to hearing what you have to say:

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