This time of year brings with it the tension of being a Jew and an American. Join in the trick-or-treating festivities, or reject Halloween as pagan? Be part of mainstream American culture by carving jack-o’-lanterns and dressing up in costume, or let the day pass unnoticed and save up for Purim? As we consider Halloween in 5771, I would like to bring to light an important issue that seems to be overlooked in the debate: what Halloween says about our culture’s view of and response to death and mourning.
My greatest objection to Halloween is that at best it makes light of and at worst a mockery of death and mourning rituals. There are graveyard scenes on front lawns, mock “RIP” tombstones, the glorification of ghosts and spirits, bloody death scenes (a lawn near where I live in Teaneck is annually “decorated” with fake bloody corpses strewn about a cemetery), and countless other images that are antithetical to the Jewish values of kavod hamet (honoring the dead) and nichum aveilim (comforting mourners). We as Jews have specific rituals and procedures that guide how we deal with the deceased, from the moment a person dies. These include not leaving the body alone, not desecrating the body in any way, and burying a person with the appropriate honor, whether the person was a big “macher” in the community, a nice person, a mean person, or a poor person. In a cemetery there are laws that guide our behavior so as not to mock the deceased. Furthermore, for those who believe in an enduring, eternal neshama, soul, within each person, the glorification of ghosts and spirits around Halloween is equally disturbing.
If we want to expose our kids to death and dying, let’s not perpetuate the romanticized Halloween version of ghosts and skeletons flitting around town. Let’s teach them sensitively about the natural cycle of life, and how they can be part of comforting others during their grieving process and how, when the inevitable time comes that someone close to them dies, they can grieve their own losses in a healthy manner. We need to raise children who will attend funerals, cook for those in mourning, be part of shiva minyans, volunteer as part of a chevra kaddisha to prepare bodies for burial – and be able to deal with loss. Halloween simply reinforces our inability – our unwillingness – to deal appropriately and constructively with the end of life.
I acknowledge that it is fun to dress up in costume and to exchange candy with neighbors. Some may accuse me of taking the day and its customs too seriously. But having fun should not come at the expense of core Jewish values. There are other opportunities during the year to mingle with our neighbors and to show our solidarity with the greater American community. I believe we must ask ourselves: What are the underlying messages we are sending through our “fun and games” during Halloween?
I propose a counter activity on Halloween, whether you trick or treat or not: Immerse yourself in death and graveyard scenes by organizing a group to help clean up a local cemetery. Let’s help tend the graves belonging to families who cannot afford perpetual care. Let’s make sure we are not ignoring the widows, widowers, and other mourners in our midst. Let’s take Halloween as an opportunity to teach our children about kavod hamet and nichum aveilim, just the way we teach them about birth and attending a brit milah or simchat bat. Instead of jack-o’-lanterns and candy, this Halloween let’s share with each other resources on helping children – and ourselves – cope with death. Let’s create a healthy environment in which we celebrate life and support each other in times of loss.