What do the dead want?

Part One

I realize I was a bit precipitous in dismissing Samhain, after extracting Thanksgiving. In fact, I fell into a error common to those addressing the issues of cultural change.  I dismissed- out of hand- a driving human need  that the festival  addresses. We all have a felt  need to remember those who have died and perhaps to have an assurance that we too will not be forgotten after our deaths.

It is certain that those of us alive wish to leave something behind that will continue to influence, or impress people.  We are reluctant to die and in most instances hold on to this present existence tenaciously. It is not surprising then that many cultures assume that after death the “dead” will continue to want to exert influence on the world they left behind, and that they will hanker for the life they have lost.

In Nkonya you first assume that the dead desire to reach the abode of the previously deceased and join the ancestors. Witches, and murderers are denied this and their spirits are thought to wander unhappily between the world of the living and the dead.  Those who reach the abode of the ancestors continue to influence the living.  They have power to do good. However they are somewhat capricious and must be placated with sacrifices, and by observing taboos so that they will not be offended. Thus their power to do good is balanced by their ability to cause sickness and death.  It also follows that marriage engagements and joyful events should not be put on a day dedicated to them because of their propensity to meddle jealously.

In the Celtic tradition, putting a candle in the window to show the way home, or putting out food, and singing songs for the departed, also shows our beliefs that the departed have a desire to partake again of  “the real world”

There is also a widespread human belief that those who have departed, having gone to a spirit existence have also gained knowledge of the future.   We know that death destroys the physical body because we can eyeball it’s destruction. Perhaps, since they are now incorporeal  we view them as having escaped the space-time continuum. We lump them with the fairy or spirit world.

Given this universal hunger to remember our dead, and to be remembered, we do need to consider the Christian answer because our hope for what is beyond the portals of death is unique.



  1. Janet said

    Yes, seeing as we are strangers looking for a country of our own, it’s unlikely we’d be wanting to return.

  2. Lila said

    The western Christian response to the dead seems to be all over the map. As a whole, Protestants, especially evangelical Protestants, seem so fearful of “hints of necromancy” that they abjure any thought of the dead. On the other hand, those with more Catholic or Orthodox leanings will pray for or to the dead; partly because they confess “communion of the saints,” with the concomitant conclusion that the “witnesses” of Heb 12:1 are at least able to cheer us on.

    In the Ukrainian bakery, I’ve seen hints of food for the dead. There is some kind of 40-day memorial meal with a loaf of braided bread, salt and a candle lit in the middle of the bread to mark the end of the 40-day mourning period. This same memorial can also happen on the first anniversary of the death. A similar memorial for the dead seems to surround the 12-course meatless meal served up on Christmas Eve. All these meals involve bread, salt and light.

    All these eastern European memorials are said to pre-date Christianity, but have been held over into the Orthodox believer.

    • adisasullivan said

      Well- I’ve been surfing up some research on the subject, and by doing a Part One I’ve rather committed myself to a Part Two. The further I go though the more I just want to say, ‘Draw close to Christ, soak yourself in his Word and let the truth set you free.”

      Here’s a Luthuanian Prayer harvested from a Catholic Site offering prayers for all Soul’s day that seems to draw more from pre-Christian beliefs than from a desire to to pray family out of purgatory.

      Lithuanian All Souls Day Prayer

      Dear souls of the dead,
      you are still remembered by my family;
      you are most worthy of our perpetual remembrance,
      especially you, my grandparents, my parents,
      also our relatives, children,
      and everyone whom death
      took away from our home.
      I invite you to this annual feast.
      We pray that this feast be agreeable to you,
      just like the memory of you is to us. Amen.

    • A. Lurkar said

      “There is some kind of 40-day memorial meal”
      Pagan Nkonyas and Akans also celebrate a 40 (or perhaps 42) day memorial after a funeral, as well as a one-year memorial that really is the true end of the matter.

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