Death takes a holiday

Death takes a holiday

A Jewish critique of Halloween

Children in grim reaper and vampire costumes.
Children in grim reaper and vampire costumes.

This time of year brings with it the tension of being a Jew and an American. Do we join in the trick-or-treating festivities, or reject Halloween as pagan? Should we be part of mainstream American culture by carving jack-o-lanterns and dressing up in costume, or let the day passed unnoticed and save up for Purim?

As we consider Halloween this year, I would like to bring to light an important issue which 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 it makes at best light of, and at worst a mockery of, death and mourning rituals. There are graveyard scenes on front lawns, mock tombstones, the glorification of ghosts and spirits, and bloody death scenes (a lawn near where I live is annually “decorated” with fake bloody corpses strewn about a cemetery).

These and countless other images are antithetical to the Jewish values of kavod hamet (honoring the dead) and nihum aveilim (comforting mourners). We as Jews have specific rituals and procedures that guide how we deal with the deceased, starting at 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 which guide our behavior so as not to violate the principle of loag l’rash, roughly translated as mocking 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 offensive and anti-Jewish.

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 minyanim, and volunteer as part of a hevra kadisha — and be able to deal with loss. Halloween simply reinforces our inability, our unwillingness, to deal appropriately and constructively with the end of life.

Some may accuse me of taking this all too seriously. I acknowledge that it’s fun to dress up in costume and to exchange candy with neighbors. 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, 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 that 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 nihum aveilim, just like we teach them about birth and attending a brit mila or simha bat when a baby is born.

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.

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