Kay Carmichael On Halloween, Life and Death


‘Perhaps we need a new Halloween festival that will symbolise death with dignity – a witch we can learn from not fear.’

The late influential social reformer, peace activist, and policy advisor Kay Carmichael muses upon Halloween in the new book It Takes a Lifetime to Become Yourself. Fondly remembering her grandmother, and her ritualistic custom to engage the souls of the dead, Carmichael argues for a new way of thinking about Halloween, as a festival to enhance our understanding of life and death.

Extract from It Takes a Lifetime to Become Yourself
By Kay Carmichael 
Edited by David Donnison
Published by Scotland Street Press

On Halloween, Death and Grandmother

 A friend of mine boasts of having met a man who, as a child, had seen an old woman being buried in a barrel because she was thought to have been a witch. The dark side of life fascinates us. Every year at Halloween we re-enact some of the drama.

My doorbell will ring constantly on Sunday evening. Small groups of nervous, excited, weirdly-dressed children will be standing there, ready to come in and perform a party piece in return for nuts, apples and with luck, a silver coin. My role will be to placate evil and pay off the dark spirits.

My grandmother had another version. For her there seemed to be no barriers of fear between the worlds of the living and the dead. Every Halloween, before going to bed, the fire would be made up, a clean white cloth put on the table and bread, water and salt ceremoniously laid out. I was told in a matter-of-fact way that this was hospitality for the souls of the dead. For this one night, they were allowed to return to visit the world of the living. They would come between midnight and dawn; and it was important to be prepared for them.

I slept with her in the hole-in-the-wall bed in the same room where we lived and ate during the day. So that night I would try to stay awake to see our ghostly visitors. I never managed to and when I woke in the morning, the table would be cleared and laid for breakfast. It was only when I visited Mexico as an adult and learned something of their ritual links with the dead that I realised my indoctrination was part of a worldwide tradition of duties and obligations that reach beyond death.

These gentle rituals have been maintained largely by women, yet the notion of the bad, horrible and ugly witch is the one which is superimposed on Halloween. In the old Celtic calendar, it was indeed a festival of witches, but these witches’ ‘crafts’ were based on the old fertility religions.

Death and fertility are closely linked. Men may kill and fertilise, but women have been left to manage and organise the consequences – the laying out of the dead, the birth of children. These are awesome and magical activities, which carry their own kind of power. In the last forty years women in ‘advanced’ countries have been giving up these powers. Few people now have their eyes closed for the last time and their bodies washed and laid out by one who has known and loved them. But women are reclaiming power over birthing and sharing that power with their men. Perhaps we can do the same for death; bring it back into our lives; retain the awe but cast out the fear.

As the proportion of aged amongst us increases we are going to be more aware of death and dying. We will need more than nuts, apples and a silver coin to buy our way out of the scientific magic of preserving life. Perhaps we need a new Halloween festival that will symbolise death with dignity – a witch we can learn not to fear, whose mask may be awesome but not ugly.


I saw her dead,
the generous body
into which I’d coorie

She was ready now
for a decent funeral
at the end of a decent life.

She had taught me
the virtues:
clean clothes,
a clean and tidy house
and loving.

I loved her.
I never said the words
but I think she knew
by the way
I clung to her skirts.

If there’s a heaven
she’ll be there
picking up feathers
dropped from angels’ wings
and washing Jesus’ bloody garments.

It Takes a Lifetime to Become Yourself, by Kay Carmichael and edited by David Donnison, is out now published by Scotland Street Press priced £10.99.

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