Let’s talk about the dead
The world of the dead is our world, just seen from a different perspective. They walk among us all the time, subtly influencing the things that happen here. Most people, however, are completely oblivious to their presence except on special occasions like Halloween or Anthesteria, when the veil that separates us grows thin. There are other times when the dead enter our awareness though. Often we dream about them or our memories call them forth. When we experience intense emotional states, particularly painful and traumatic ones, they feel closer. People who are mentally unstable – artists, visionaries, the inebriated, the insane – frequently report encounters with the dead. But the rest of humanity have a much harder time of it. That’s because the dead are invisible.
When death comes it separates them from our lives, from our communities, from our awareness. Death does not happen all at once however. It is a long process of disintegration and decay. It begins with the cessation of respiration and brain function and ends only when there is nothing left of them in this world but memories. We seek to hasten the process by removing them from our presence. We consign their remains to the earth or the flames so that we don’t have to watch their decomposition. But also to mark their transition into another state of being, their entry into a community that is different from the one they knew previously. We solemnize this passage through rituals of mourning comparable in many respects to the other great markers of changed identity such as birth, marriage, adulthood, initiation, etc. Without such rites it is difficult for us to let them go and often misfortune, illness, and even death befall the family and community of a deceased person that is not granted the proper rituals of transformation. This is because they are stuck in between and the forces of death flow through them and into the lives of their relatives and neighbors. The transition must be completed so that the veil can grow closed once more, separating the visible from the invisible world.
This is what the world of the dead is, you see. Or rather you don’t see because it is the invisible portion of this world. That’s what the Greeks meant when they said that the deceased flew to the House of Haides. Haides simply means “invisible” and the denizens of that land were described as shades or dim reflections of their former selves. After the funeral what ties them to this world and to us is memory. What is memory but a reflection of something that once was here but can no longer be seen or touched or felt? Even if it’s a memory of a living thing that thing has changed in the interim so that it’s no longer precisely what it once was. Thus everything that is remembered is dead and incapable of change, for change is the defining characteristic of living things. The Lord of Haides is thus the Lord of Memory, preserving an unchanging image of things for all time. Or at least for as long as memory lasts.
If memory is what binds the dead to us and our portion of the world then what happens when we forget? I think that they experience another kind of death, a complete sundering of them from this world which consigns them to total invisibility, impotence and oblivion. That is why it is so important to honor the dead by keeping their memory alive through stories and offerings and the performance of regular rituals. These acts halt the process of disintegration and gives them cognizance and the power needed to act in both the visible and invisible world. Memory keeps the channels open and through these channels flow the blessings of the invisible realm: wisdom, health, fertility, luck, protection. These are all invisible things like the dead – ideas or concepts if you will, that cannot be touched or measured though we can certainly feel their absence or presence and see the effect they have on material substances. Poets and mystics and wise-men have long recognized that the most important things cannot be apprehended with the physical senses alone. I think that it is proper to consider all such things the gifts of the dead for they share this fundamental quality of invisibility and things of a similar nature are both drawn to and exert a strong influence upon each other. Thus to enrich your life and the life of your community it is essential that you honor and strengthen the memory of the dead in this, the visible world.