The death-day feast

Ken Colston

October 31, 1991|By Ken Colston

MY FIRST acquaintance with All Saints' Day came before I turned Catholic, when I was a young teaching assistant in a high school in France in the late 1970s.

I was not used to Catholic feast days as national holidays. To my surprise, French banks, post offices and schools closed on Ascension and Assumption, contradicting (in my view) the principles of reason and natural rights on which the republic was founded. Nevertheless, no teacher is too pure and principled to turn down an off day, and I happily accepted an invitation to spend a long weekend with a student's family in the Norman countryside.

It was gray, gloomy and foggy, the kind of weather that feeds legends, and we spent, it seemed, the whole time indoors, much of it eating and joking around the table or watching reruns of famous deceased French entertainers on television: Jean Gavin, Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel and Fernandel. For about an hour in the afternoon, we visited the local cemetery, and I watched people drop chrysanthemums on ancestral gravestones and talk aloud and tenderly, as if the dead still had ears. Then we returned home for more Camembert cheese and TV.

Until that day, I had never heard of "la Toussaint," and I assured my hosts that there was no translation in American English. Yes, American children tricked and treated on Halloween, but Nov. 1 was nothing special on the calendar. By the time I had gone to bed, however, I had fallen in love with this curious celebration, completely neglected by most of Protestant America, during which an entire nation seriously reflected on death without being morbid about it, eating rich food and drinking good wine, watching reruns of late greats and talking solemnly and unselfconsciously to dear hallowed souls.

For the first time in my life, I was experiencing the power and comfort of communion: not in the literal sense of partaking of the Eucharist, but in the metaphorical sense of becoming a part of a group. The group with which I was communing was not a superficial gathering organized to cheer for a sports team or even to boast of a military victory. The group was not territorial or nationalistic; it was metaphysical. It was organized to resist the great common adversary of all human life, the grim reaper, and thus it was the largest, most profound and most intimate kind of human association.

Thus, my first "Toussaint" bound all in all (even an ignorant foreigner) in a death-day feast, and yet, though intense and serious, it was not harrowing. At moments, for example, at the cemetery, it was sorrowful, but through the sorrow a magnificent tribute to the significance of life was palpable. The logic of the feast was unstated but clear: The dead count; therefore, the living matter. If the dead can be remembered as saints, then the living can perform weighty, meaningful deeds. Whether or not one was a believer, "la Toussaint" implied that human existence is not absurd.

As a great cure for collective cynicism, I would recommend making All Saints' Day an American holiday, although I am well aware of why such a proposal would not fly. First, the word "saints" has not only a Christian but also a sectarian ring that earnest defenders of the separation of church and state would oppose. Second, it would be pointed out that we already have our Memorial Day. Third, Americans are too future-oriented and too materialistic to get serious about death, the dissolution of matter, and the achievements of past souls.

Now that "la Toussaint" is a holy day of obligation for me, I have no interest in campaigning to make it a legislated off day, but I would like to respond to the objections to such a holiday. First, it is sad if the doctrine of separation of church and state stands in the way of a collective metaphysical ceremony. A state too pure to truck with religion only gets half my vote. Second, our Memorial Day, set in the bloom of spring and festooned with red, white and blue, lacks the solemnity and high seriousness of "la Toussaint," which is dignified and made poignant by the rotting darkness of autumn. How appropriate to the Pollyannish American character that our national death day comes when the days are growing longer and the world is bursting with new life!

By comparison with the old world, the new world is the home of an optimistic, materialistic, forward-looking people, and for me that is precisely what the old world has over the new. An optimism based on material victories ultimately deceives and turns sour when death rears its head. The clear awareness of death breeds moderation and humility. It is good for the soul, "la Toussaint" instructs, for a people to look death in its grisly face, to acknowledge the brevity of matter, and to remember the enduring but limited exempla of men and women who are no more.

Ken Colston is an administrator and teacher at St. John's College, Annapolis.

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