“The harvest was in, the summer done, the world brown and drab and mindful of death. Snow had not yet descended to comfort and hide the bony trees or blackened fields; so with little effort man could look about and see a meditation on death and life hereafter… The vigil for the souls, as well as the saints, had to be kept on this night because of course the two days were consecutive feasts and a vigil is never kept on a feast.”

– Mary Reed Newland, “All Hallows Eve”

“If we were vampires and death was a joke
We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke
And laugh at all the lovers and their plans
I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand
Maybe time running out is a gift
I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift
And give you every second I can find
And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind”

– “If We Were Vampires” by Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit

At the center of All Hallows Eve is a preparation for the following feast days—All Saints Day and All Souls Day—where prayer for and celebration of the saints and the faithful departed takes place. On this evening, some parts of the world guarded against children being outside of their homes due to the thinning wall between the natural and the supernatural as the spirits would walk amongst us. Some ghost stories continue to plague the hearts and minds of generations. Yet the nocturnal devotions of All Hallows Eve involve a wakefulness and prayerfulness in the midst of death’s sting which is all around at this time of year, even in the trees and fields. It wasn’t uncommon to have “black vespers”—or evening prayer services—or communal prayers in the cemeteries of the deceased throughout different periods and places. All Hallows Eve, or Halloween, is, simply put, for sufferers. It is for those who have been stung.

This Halloween season—a season that is dear to my heart—has been a full recognition of the truth of what the holiday actually means. My grandmother died earlier this month. Mid-September we were blindsided by a stage-four diagnosis of some type of cancer. It didn’t really matter the type, because it had already metastasized throughout her body. My grandmother, who was 87, refused a biopsy and treatment. She was put on hospice promptly and died a couple of weeks later. I have not been able to conjure up the enjoyment and atmosphere I so deeply desire around this time of year. Instead I have been reminded more and more of the “not yet” disclosed in a favorite—though increasingly clichéd—theological phrase of our current ecclesial season.

For my grandmother, her inevitable death was an opportunity for order to be brought back to chaos, for a small piece of her being to be made right. I have written about my father’s early-onset Alzheimer’s on numerous occasions on this site and, during the past five or six years, his mother has watched her son lose all faculties. I have watched her feed him, hug him, and care for him as if he had reverted back to the infant he once was. In these spaces, the old saying that no child should die before their parents takes on an almost talismanic power. That connection between parent and child is remarkable and simultaneously builds up and deeply wounds us all. Yet there is an order to things. Yet my grandmother was forced to watch the slow march towards death that my dad is still on the road to at this moment. It was a specific horror for her to see the brokenness of the world in such visceral and intimate terms.

She received her diagnosis with a resolve I had never seen, nor knew existed. I explored the universe in her eyes and saw not a trace of fear. She was not afraid of death. She saw death as a correction to a wrong that had been done. To die before her son. She saw this as a specific mercy. In death, a little real estate of death’s curse could be defeated by God’s mysterious providence. Another sign that perhaps the light really is winning. All those who remained felt the sting the day she died. I lost my teammate. The woman who taught me the constancy of God’s love by showing me the constancy of hers. It is the curse of those living to realize, in the aftermath of death, the extent of that which they lost.

But this is the crux of the problem, right? If death on this side of the Garden did not exist, no one and nothing would matter. Not actually. Love would become victim to the banal. It would be something not rendered in the world due to a life without end. There would be no use for love, grief, sorrow, sadness, or pain, because there is no interminable consequence to missed opportunities to say I love you or to forgive or be forgiven. Nothing to be learned. All of these things that we all feel in some measure are felt due to our inevitable demise. We all must die for any of the love we gave and received, the suffering we endured, the grief we entered into for any of it to mean something. Death, while being the final enemy, perhaps wasn’t all curse. Once we knew our nakedness, Death was the only way for that knowledge to mean something to us and the knowledge was too sacred to go on being meaningless. So God handed down a mercy in the clothing of a curse. This seems to track with God’s plan to redeem the living through his Son as well. Put to death to defeat Death. All meaning was wrapped up in that paradigm that Christ had to die, to succumb to the mercy of his Father, for it to mean something.

All Hallows Eve is a holiday borne out of suffering and death and yet remains so deeply saturated with resurrection hope. They will rise, they will be near, they will be present in a mysterious way that no one on this side of the veil understands. All of this is part of the promise of reunion. But not yet.

As I looked at my grandmother’s face in her coffin, I felt something I had never felt before. I had one rational and one irrational thought in my mind, at the same time. I knew she was dead. That was my rational thought. Yet as my wife stood behind me with her arms around me, I had such a visceral feeling that my grandmother was going to wake up from this nap she was taking. I literally couldn’t take my eyes away for fear that I would miss it. To see her loving smile one more time. To hear her say I love you in that drawl that she was so self-conscious of. To be in her presence one more time.

I felt those two ideas so strongly all at once. It was surreal. And, yet, looking back on it now, I find that those two things are so profoundly intertwined within this fleeting life we have. This is the watchfulness that we must be aware of. Death is not good. It is at the core of all fear. It is the primal horror of all living things. Yet we know of the promise given to us ages ago. A hope that all will be made new, what is dead will be made alive, and there will be no more tears or sorrow. Death will be undone. Until then, we purveyors of the black vespers will continue to watch, wait, and pray through the dark nights of this life until that dawn peaks over that horizon.