In Honor of National Death Month

And so, October is upon us again. Though the United States is largely divorced from its agricultural origins, for many, this month still marks the heart of harvest season. For the European ancestry that peppers many of our fellow citizens’ lines of descent, this earthly cycle of sowing, flowering, ripening, and reaping brought with it solemn reflection on the cycle of human life. If winter was the season of death, then autumn was the season of dying and Halloween the rough midpoint between them – a threshold, thin as skin, over which the dead or the living might stumble with the slightest misstep.

In honor of All Hallows’ Evening, whose grim celebrations (thanks to a little commerce and a lot of festiveness) now spread even into the latter days of September, I shall focus my October writings upon the subject of death. I can think of no better time to touch on a subject which affects us all – no matter how much we may try to relegate it as far as possible from the warmth of well-lit homes and future plans.

I will begin simply, with a fine rhyme I have chosen to name “Samhain Chant”, after the pre-Christian, Celtic holiday from which Halloween derives. I learned it as a child while seated upon the thin, bony knee of my maternal grandmother, Colette Luzel. I called her Neema and still miss her and her indefatigable smile.

Despite much research, I have had no luck whatsoever in finding any reference to any of these lines but the first two. They come from Wales and were shrieked forth from pagan throats back when hilltop bonfires marked the close of harvest. Neema was from Brittany and spoke the old language of that land, which has strong roots with both Welsh and Cornish. Though I don’t recall her reciting these words in any tongue but English, I nevertheless suspect the rhyme is of Breton origin.

How long the chant has been in my family, I cannot say. Neema claimed to have learned them from her grandmother, who in turn had learned them from her grandmother, and so on and so forth, back beyond memory. Indeed, its imagery and the mention of Ankou, graveyard watcher and cart-bearing henchman of Death, lend to visions of hard toiling in feudal fields. Regardless, what was true in the Middle Ages remains true today and beyond the steady edge of our electric lights, the spectre of mortality stubbornly persists. It is that to which this ode is dedicated:


The cropped, black sow:

Seize the hindmost!

Above your grunts,

the swift may boast,

but you will boast

the louder when

the first, at last,

rots in your den.


The wise, black crow:

Pluck the first fruit!

Within your gaze,

the crops take root,

but you will root

the deeper ‘til

the farms are left

no fruit to mill.


The gaunt, black mare:

Stamp the bare soil!

Beside your tracks,

the masses toil,

but you will toil

the harder part,

bearing them all

in Ankou’s cart.


The tall, black man:

Reap the high stalks!

Upon your path,

the hale youth walks,

but you will walk

the taller, for

beyond your path

there is no more.


About Buck O'Roon

Buck O'Roon [buhk oh-roon] –noun 1. a southerner of skeptical stripe, recognizable by his deeply furrowed brow and increasing lack of patience for institutionalized horse manure 2. curmudgeon-in-training
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