As a child, I remember watching the Peanuts Christmas special, in which Linus talks about the religious meaning of Christmas. What about the religious meaning of Halloween? Despite Linus’s insistence in the importance of the Great Pumpkin, the Wikipedia article “Halloween” says that liturgically,
From the tenor of many Halloween costumes, it seems that Halloween is a time to remember not only the dead but also death itself. But, intriguingly, Halloween comes at death in a light-hearted way—as if to say: yes, we’ll all die, but what of it?
Should we fear death? As an if-then statement, those convinced they will go to hell should fear death. Those convinced they will go to heaven shouldn’t fear death much.
What about those convinced that death is nonexistence? In his essay “Immortality and the Fear of Death” Jack Sherefkin discuses the ancient symmetry argument that one shouldn’t fear death if it is simple nonexistence:
A more powerful argument used by the Epicureans against the fear of death is the “symmetry” argument. This was probably first used by Lucretius, a Roman disciple of Epicurus. Lucretius argued since we do not feel horror at our past non-existence, the time before we were born, it is irrational to feel horror at our future non-existence, the time after our death, since they are the same. Or as Seneca expressed it: “Would you not think him an utter fool who wept because he was not alive a thousand years ago? And is he not just as much a fool who weeps because he will not be alive a thousand years from now? It is all the same; you will not be and you were not. Neither of these periods of time belongs to you.”
Some version of the symmetry argument has been put forth by Cicero, Plutarch, Seneca, Schopenhauer and Hume. Hume cited Lucretius’ argument to Boswell, Dr. Johnson’s biographer, when he interviewed Hume on his death bed. “I asked him if the thought of Annihilation never gave him any uneasiness. He said not the least; no more than the thought than he had not been as Lucretius observes.”
If not fear, I think there is a reason to hate death. Death is a key part of the time budget constraint we face. Facing death is like not being richer in time than we are. Among other things, I am annoyed with my own death in the way I am annoyed with having only 24 hours in a day, of which almost a third go to sleep.
We may fear or hate our own death, but some of the sharpest experiences in our lives are likely to be the deaths of others. Most people see the deaths of their own parents—an experience that typically hits them like a ton of bricks. You can sense some of that in my posts about the deaths of my parents:
I have also seen the deaths of my father-in-law, mother-in-law. And, unfortunately, I have seen the deaths of three of our children, which my wife Gail talks about in a guest post:
In the public realm, I have become very much aware of eminent economists important to my own thinking who have died. I have not written posts about all of the economists important to me who have died in the last few years, for example, I was very distressed when Julio Rotemberg died. But I do have some posts on economists important to me who have died:
But Halloween takes even our grief and looks at the bright side. The Mexican counterpart of Halloween is “The Day of the Dead” when the dead come back to visit. But even if the dead are simply remembered, it is a demonstration that death has not sundered our connection utterly. The connection between two human beings is badly, badly frayed when one of them dies. But the connection is not gone. It is still there.
The connection to those who have gone before us is an important one. On the Norlin Library here at the University of Colorado Boulder is the inscription “Who knows only his own generation remains always a child,” which is a tweak on something Cicero wrote. We grow stronger by strengthening our connection to those who are dead.
Let me leave you with my “Daily Devotional for the Not-Yet,” which has a line about our ancestors and others who have died before us. Let us not forget them.
In this moment, as in all the moments I have, may the image of the God or Gods Who May Be burn brightly in my heart.
Let faith give me a felt assurance that what must be done to bring the Day of Awakening and the Day of Fulfilment closer can be done in a spirit of joy and contentment.
Let the gathering powers of heaven be at my left hand and my right. Let there be many heroes and saints to blaze the trail in front of me. Let the younger generations who will follow discern the truth and wield it to strengthen good and weaken evil. Let the grandeur of the Universe above inspire noble thoughts that lead to noble plans and noble deeds. Let the Earth beneath be a remembrance of the wisdom of our ancestors and of others who have died before us. And may the light within be an ocean of conscious and unconscious being to sustain me and those who are with me through all the trials we must go through.
In this moment, I am. And I am grateful that I am. May others be, now and for all time.