• Jena Martin MD

Halloween and the inevitability of death

Updated: Oct 29, 2019

Leaves crackled under my feet as I walked past the haunted manor. Dismembered and bloodied hands reached up out of the soil, grasping at bones scattered on the lawn. A blood-stained hatchet was lodged in the trunk of the tree. I heard cackling laughter and the sound of creaking wood from behind the front door. On a beautiful sunny fall day, I was shaking…

...with anger. Yet another lawn decorated for Halloween? How could these people have the gall to display death as a joke?! I was fresh from dissecting corpses in my first year as a pathology resident, and I was indignant. The smell of decomposition (decomp as we say in the trade) was still heavy in my nostrils while I considered all the Halloween decor. Glitter-encrusted hatchets? Decomposing zombies at the door? No thanks. I brought the real thing home with me, as evidenced by our dog’s sudden interest in the bottom of my shoes. After wrestling with heavy and cold dead limbs during the day, the whimsical decor of Halloween shocked me.

I had completed medical school that summer and was stuck doing autopsies during the month of October. An autopsy, the proscribed examination of a dead body to determine the cause of death, is difficult. You read through the medical chart having already skipped ahead to the surprise ending. Now you must figure out the steps that led to this moment, synthesizing all the information that doctors during life might have had trouble putting together. You do all this by poking, sawing, slicing and grinding the entire body from skull to toes, while bundled into protective garb that resembles an astronaut’s suit.

I was angry at these silly displays because the people who constructed them seemed to diminish the terrible nature of death. Death came for the deserving and undeserving, the old and young. It was both sudden and anticipated, and all very lonely and final. I’d spent most days that fall in the morgue listening to water running in the stainless steel sinks, terrified I’d cut myself or otherwise expose myself to disease while slicing organs, as I slid my fingers in and out of every physical space in the human body. I seemed to have slipped through a curtain into a parallel universe. Or was that - our inevitable ending - actually the real world? We play with plastic singing skeletons and chattering candy-filled cauldrons to distract ourselves from the reality of death.

Memento Mori - translated from the Latin as ‘remember you must die’ - refers to skulls and other artifacts meant to remind us of the inevitability of death. These are the skulls decorating philosophers' desks in oil paintings, symbols of imminent death. They nudge us - seize the current moment, it is all you have. In a commercialized manner, our Halloween decor approaches a memento mori. Americans spend a mind-blowing $9 billion on Halloween related stuff. It’s now normal to decorate our homes like the set of a gory horror movie. But why? The surface reason for all this decor is it’s intended to be ‘scary’. But what if the real horror is something very normal, something we are all, deep down, anticipating - our own mortality?

Over time, I got used to what I was doing in the morgue. We humans can acclimate to almost any cultural practice. The gruesomeness faded, and the interesting things emerged. I was able to fill in the missing pieces of how people died and provide answers to the living. I can honestly say that while I don’t enjoy doing an autopsy, the entire process is satisfying when you can explain the unknown.

As proof of how far I’ve mellowed, I must tell you that I actually have my own set of Halloween decorations now, albeit not too frightful ones. (I love costumes and disguises, but that’s a 365-day hobby for me.) I don’t regularly perform autopsies and I frequently forget about the certainty of my own death - and the uncertainty of when it will arrive. I too need to cultivate an awareness of my own mortality.

Having distance from death is a new luxury in human history, so obviously there are many traditions that honor death. I’ve been reading about Tibetan death meditation - sitting with a corpse and consciously recognizing your own inevitable corpse, here with you now. I’ve spent many hours with corpses and you cannot leave their presence without an appreciation for the fragility of life. Cultivating awareness of our death may provoke fear, but I would argue this fear is there whether we recognize it or not. Contemplating death as the great leveler gives us a chance to discharge the fear and not live in terror. While sitting next to a corpse is currently less culturally acceptable than plastic skeletons in the lawn, perhaps this commodified exploration of death is better than nothing.

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