Thursday, October 18, 2007

Dumb Supper, Mourning Tea, Grieving, and Connections with the Dead

One facet of my recent trip to Salem interested me quite a bit, and I think it merits a separate post. It involves two aspects of the Festival of the Dead celebrations, including The Mourning Tea, and The Dumb Supper. The festival website describes the Tea like this:

"Don your finest mourning attire and hearken back to a time when mourning customs were elaborate and extravagant. Music will fill the air with sweet sorrow as the resident bards of the long black veil recite a selection of odes to the somber beauty of Death’s final waltz. High tea complete with courses of traditional tea sandwiches and desserts will be served.

"Share your favorite photos and tales of your family members, friends, mentors, or other loved ones who have passed away. You will be invited to place a photo and description of your loved one into our Salem Witches’ Book of the Dead, used to honor and invoke the ancestors. Through the sharing of these pictures and stories, those who have crossed over will live on in the hearts and minds of those who remain for generations to come."

And the Supper is described in this way:

"Join the Salem Witches as we honor the dead with a dinner observed in utter silence. Salem Witch Christian Day invites you to a banquet of sumptuous cuisine where the only sound heard is music chosen in memory of the departed. Bring photos and mementos to summon the souls of your loved ones on the other side as you partake in the most solemn of all the ceremonies of Witchcraft. The Dumb Supper is an ancient tradition where the dead attend the living for a magical night of communion!

"The evening opens with a ceremony welcoming the dead, after which attendees are guided into the sacred space where the feast is served. From this point on, no one may speak. By remaining quiet, you will open your heart and mind to those who have crossed over."

As I read culture I try to do so with Christian eyes that see the Spirit of God moving and where I might come alongside, and sometimes it is happening in ways that might not be seen by many other Christians. In this case I believe the Tea and the Supper represent significant parts of the Festival of the Dead that are similar to what I observed at Burning Man Festival with participants who memorialize lost loved ones at the Temple. Readers can read my previous comments on this aspect of Burning Man here, but in my view given Western failures at providing appropriate venues for the grieving process, and virtually no sense of connectedness and honor for deceased loved ones and ancestors, it appears that other cultures (such as Mexico with its Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead) and subcultures (such as Burning Man Festival and Salem's Pagan and Wiccan community with aspects of its Festival of the Dead) meet real needs that facilitate healthy and much-needed rituals and points of connection with the dead.

Conservative Christian readers should not misconstrue my meaning here. I am not advocating communication with the dead (so please don't post comments or send emails accusing me of necromancy or perceived scriptural violations), but I do believe there is a place, particularly within Protestantism, for new rituals associated with death that help the living better deal with grief, and maintain a sense of connectedness and honor for the dead beyond our Western tendency toward individualism and "gone and nearly forgotten" attitudes that privilege the living over the dead and do not provide for a sense of ongoing connectedness with family, ancestors, and lost loved ones.

I would love to experiment with a local and contextualized version of some of these things in my Utah context. I wonder whether a Christian community can be found with the interest (and daring) to put together a communal and memorial meal that involves ritual such as a Book of the Dead or the creation of a temple-like structure with personal offerings that are burned in memory and love for the departed. It would seem to me that several segments of Utah's population would resonate with such an event, whether Latter-day Saints with their emphasis on family in this life and beyond the grave, the Neo-Pagan subculture, and various other groups that make up Utah's people and community mosaic.

Last year Cornerstone Festival took an initial step in this area when they contextualized a Dia de los Muertos offrenda or family altar of offerings for the deceased, but unfortunatley they were met by charges of necromancy and syncretism by conservative Christian elements. (Readers should read my summary and response to such charges in my previous post on this topic.) There is a need to move beyond such shallow, knee-jerk reactions and to engage in more careful cultural and theological reflection. In so doing, perhaps a festival subculture like Burning Man outside Reno, and a Neo-Pagan subculture like that at Salem, have some valuable things to teach us about attitudes toward death, the dead as well as the living.


Lainie Petersen said...


I am glad that you are back safe and sound after your travels, and am pleased to learn that you had a good time.

I agree that modern Christians don't deal too well with death, and are often unwilling to confront it. Rituals/celebrations like these do, IMHO, serve a real purpose, and are something that Christians ought to consider.

Scott said...

OK... I'm glad someone else went first.

I love John's ideas most of the time. I'm having some trouble with this one here:

"I wonder whether a Christian community can be found with the interest (and daring) to put together a communal and memorial meal that involves ritual such as a Book of the Dead or the creation of a temple-like structure with personal offerings that are burned in memory and love for the departed."

I'm a missionary in Taiwan and you just described one of the ways the Buddhist/Daoist/Animist people of Taiwan remember the dead. (The burning of memorials/temples/feasts/food offerings) I think I totally know your heart... and I love that you'd rather see Christians ENGAGED in culture and discussion with those who aren't Christians, but this idea is hitting close to home for me.

To be clear... I'm not saying I necessarily disagree with it... it is just making me think long and hard.

The Catholic Church in Taiwan allows their members to burn spirit money for the dead. Their official reasoning was: "People won't convert if we don't allow them to do that." Their decision was based on membership rather than scripture. I'm CERTAIN that my church here would be a lot bigger if we didn't require that people stop burning spirit money for their ancestors, etc.

I'm sure that I won't see move very far on that particular point (burning spirit money)... but I'm very interested in trying to find more ways to make the church here less Western. Just because Daoists do "xyz" doesn't mean that Christians have to avoid it. I want to learn to judge each expression of faith/worship/culture/etc on its own and not dismiss them out of hand. We need to be especially wise and discerning regarding appropriate expressions/rituals surrounding death. I'm not comfortable with having new Christians give up their previous ritual (perhaps Daoist or Buddhist) and not having anything as significantly expressive or participatory to offer in return. People here think that Christians don't respect their ancestors. They aren't correct technically, but I can see why they say/think it. Please Lord! Lead us and give us wisdom!

I really do think I understand where your heart is at... but this one is tough for me. I'd literally freak out if I saw what you are suggesting happen in a Christian church because it is so clearly identified with ancestor worship here where I live. It doesn't make me right...

I appreciate your pushing the issue as you do on this blog. The church needs to re-learn how to bring Jesus TO people instead of wait for people to come to church. It can't be learned inside a church building, IMO. It has to be learned out there on the street... at burning man... in Salem... in West Hollywood... at Cornerstone(?)... etc.

John W. Morehead said...

In response to the last comment, thanks for your openness in thinking this one through, and in sharing your concerns.

Keep in mind that every ministry activity we engage in, or don't engage in, must be appropriately contextualized. It must involve a level of contexualization that is appropriate to a given context and yet not go so far as to involve syncretism. In your context in Taiwan, perhaps what I suggest would not be appropriate for a new cultural expression of Christianty. But as you point out, something is needed since the culture does honor or venerate the ancestors. As the Chinese Rites Controversy surrounding Matteo Ricci's work in China illustrated, this is an important missional and cultural topic, and a difficult one for Christians.

From my perspective in the West, including America, as I've posted on before, we tend to deal with death inappropriately, and we Protestants are not well known for our embrace of festival and ritual. These come together to create a less than ideal situation where death is concerned. Therefore, in my thinking, is it not possible to learn something from Burning Man and the Salem Festival of the Dead that might be appropriated and recontextualized? I think there is something of value here, and I'd ask my readers to keep an open mind, review my previous posts on the topic, and let's continue to kick this one around.

g13 said...


this is a really interesting conversation. i was just reading about the festival of the dead online and feeling a similar attraction to it. in fact, i was openly wondering whether i could attend the event without participating in pagan worship or scandalizing those i worship with at the gathering in salem.

though i haven't given this concept a great amount of thought, i think there is a really strong tradition of remembering one's ancestors in the biblical tradition that usamerican churches could draw upon if they wanted to help christians honor the communities and individuals that have gone before us and we are a continuance of.

really good stuff john. thank you for opening the conversation.


jeff gentry

Anonymous said...

This post is a spectacular example of why I love reading your blog, John.

I don't have much (if anything new) to add to this conversation, but I thought I'd like to make an observations. In general, Protestants seem to have a hard time finding a distinction between honoring someone or something and worshipping that person or thing. So perhaps a precursor to what you're suggesting is to work on clarifying both concepts to a point where the difference is more easily distinguishable.