The Dead Do Vote and Not Just in Chicago

by Elizabeth Cunningham

As the United States prepares for midterm elections (a phrase that recalls midterm exams and evokes much of the same anxiety) some of us are also preparing for Hallowe’en, the Eve of All Saints Day for Christians and for pagans, Samhain, a word that translates from Gaelic as Summer’s End. Many Mexican-Americans will celebrate Día de los Muertos. Though these holidays are culturally and historically distinct, they share the same time of year and many of the same customs, particularly the honoring of the dead, the acknowledgment of worlds and realities beyond our immediate ken.

However long term their effects, elections happen in the frenzy of a particular moment and climate, currently a desperate and divisive one. The holy days which precede this sacred, secular rite—the casting of the ballot—can offer a longer view, both comforting and profound in its perspective.

We are not just republicans or democrats, liberals or conservatives, moderates or extremists who have trouble finding or defining community. We are part of the great communion that embraces the living, the dead, and all who will come after us. Our ancestors—we share them if we go back far enough—have been rogues and heroes, courageous and cowardly, sung and unsung, hardworking and indolent, cruel and kind, mistaken and visionary. Ancestors are not just our blood kin, but the people whose beliefs, ideas, and creations have shaped us. Whether we know their names or not, they live in us as we will live in those who come after us, whether or not we have biological children. 

As part of the preparation for voting—and as incentive to vote—we might do well to contemplate this communion, invoke the wisdom of the ancestors to help us keep faith with the descendants.

The season itself reminds us of we are part of the cycle of birth, growth, decline, death, rebirth. The leaves fall and turn back into earth. The campaign signs (less attractive and harder to recycle) will blow away, too. The traditions of Hallowe’en give us a chance to play with our fears of death through costumes, games, and parades. And in our culture, which has been based on constant growth and productivity, we are especially frightened of decline and death. We do not want chickens to sleep at night or fields to lie fallow or oil and gas to stay underground. We are afraid of the dark.

Every year, just before another election, we have a chance to make to make friends with our fears, to know that we are and will be both dust and truth, that the mystery that gave rise to our little lives will receive us again with an embrace beyond our imagining.

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Elizabeth Cunningham October 26, 2010 - 11:07 pm

Maeve speaking: I have lived through many Samhains. I will never forget the one where it was prophesied that a misgotten child (moi) would give birth to a misbegotten child. (For the story of that child, you will have to wait for Red-Robed Priestess.)

This is one of the best times of year. The Otherworld is always there. It is a trick of the light, a trick of the eye to see it–our own mortal reflection in eternity.

Unknown October 27, 2010 - 1:09 pm

Profound: that we all carry the heritage of all who came before, and those who come after will carry ours. We should definitely think of that heritage when we participate in that other secular, sacred ritual, as you called it. Vote as if history is watching, because it is.

Brooke November 1, 2010 - 5:10 am

Great, now I feel like I actually have to fill out that ballot! Thanks a lot. No, seriously, this is profound. Thank you for making an such and ordinary task that I so resist (fear that I really have no effect unless there is a major party change happening)–the fact that I can tune into the wisdom of our ancerstors and those to come makes it feel like it could be something more. You have such an amazing way of making the ordinary feel just that much more extraordinary, helping me take more interest in the world at hand.

Neferhuri November 2, 2010 - 1:38 am

Thanks for this, Elizabeth! I found it immensely comforting and yes, liberating as well. You remind us that the election tomorrow is only a season, that there's an ebb and flow in the tide of human events.

Thanks for reminding us of our common humanity. Sometimes I'm so infuriated by the antics or downright misdeeds of the opposite party that I tend to think of them as fiends in human form, rather than human beings. It's refreshing to read your words and reflect that this, too, will one day be an old song.


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