Friday, November 4, 2011

Making time for loved ones lost

Mourning Tea and Dumb Supper bring peace and closeness

By Sarah Thomas/

Salem —

Zombies and vampires. They’re probably some of the easiest and most popular Halloween costumes in the world. A few makeup effects and perhaps a set of false teeth or rent garments are all you need to transform yourself into one, because both characters are, literally, dead bodies. For a typical Halloween reveler, seeing or being a zombie or vampire is probably about as close as it gets to really thinking about the dead.

But that’s not the case at two very different Haunted Happenings events in Salem. The Mourning Tea and the Dumb Supper, both of which are hosted by members of the Salem Witch community, give visitors a chance to be with loved ones lost again – whether by experiencing a feeling of supernatural connection or just to spend time with their memories, in the company of other people who grieve.

“I originally planned the Dumb Supper with my best friend, Shawn Poirier,” said Christian Day, a warlock and the owner of the Salem witch accessory shops Hex and Omen. “We had started running the Salem Witches Ball a few years earlier, and we noticed that a lot of the Haunted Happenings events were things like corn mazes and pet shows. We didn’t feel like there were a lot of spiritual events, and a lot of people come to Salem on Halloween because this is an important spiritual holiday for them.”
Poirier attended the first few Dumb Suppers and was instrumental in planning the Mourning Tea, but he was not able to attend the first one. He died of a heart attack in 2007.

 Fond memories

Halloween – or Samhain, in the pagan and Wiccan traditions – is a holiday traditionally associated with the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead being thin. Hence the associations with Halloween and the occult that led to Ouija boards, food sacrifices to spirits (the origins of giving out candy), and those vampires and zombies already mentioned. But for many people, the associations to the departed are much clearer and more resonant.

“Our father, Achilles Granata, died on Nov. 15, 2010, almost exactly a year ago,” said Janet Mitchell, who attended the Mourning Tea with her younger sister Jennifer Granata. “He loved Halloween. Every year he would plant a field of pumpkins, and come October he’d harvest them and give them to neighborhood children for free.”

“He used to come to Salem for VFW events,” said Granata. “He was a member of the Army Air Corps in World War II and the Air Force in Korea. He really liked Salem. Coming here today just seemed to be a good way to honor him.”

At the Mourning Tea, attendees made pages for a Book of the Dead, adding pictures of lost relatives, stickers, drawings, and words. Afterwards, many chose to stand up and tell the other attendees stories of those they mourned.

“My husband, James, was killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan,” said Christine Ayube, the widow of James Ayube II. James was honored for his sacrifice by the city of Salem earlier this year with the christening of the James Ayube Memorial Bridge.

Christine Ayube shared fond memories of her life with James.

“He was the biggest nerd you’ll ever meet,” Ayube said. “After we were married, we walked back down the aisle to the Imperial March from ‘Star Wars.’”

Another attendee, Marlene Longo, said she had also come to the event last year. A Connecticut hairdresser, Benti brought a crystal that had been given to her by the son of a beloved client, Maryann Benti.

“When Maryann began to get sick, I would go to her house and do her hair,” Longo said. “The event gives me a chance to feel a nice remembrance of her. The people here don’t feel so alone.”

 Changing lives

The Mourning Tea is organized by another Salem witch and friend of Shawn Poirier, Leanne Marrama, along with her colleague Heather MacDonald.

“Shawn and I began talking about doing something like this in 2006,” Marrama said. “After his death, the event began to mean so much more to me. It’s a chance to feel close to my friend again.”

The Dumb Supper is, like the Mourning Tea, a ceremony built around remembering and respecting the dead. But it is more formal and rooted in many different religious and spiritual traditions.

“The idea for a dinner for the dead originates in ancient Egypt,” said Lori Bruno, a medium at Hex. “When the Egyptians would inter the bodies of their loved ones, they would always eat a ceremonial meal. We have found remnants of these meals at archaeological digs.”

Adding to the Egyptian tradition with other rituals from such diverse backgrounds as the Isle of Man in Great Britain and the American Ozarks, Dumb Suppers began to be celebrated in the 1920s, said Christian Day.

“The idea is to do everything backwards, to try and bring the dead closer,” Day said. “We start at dessert and work our way backwards. We have music playing from across the spiritual spectrum, but aside from that, the meal is eaten in complete silence to pay our respects.”

Day said that the act of eating, which nourishes life, gave attendees a chance to contemplate the cycle of life and death.
“What I get out of the Dumb Supper, still, is the knowledge that this isn’t the end,” Day said. “I might be skeptical and jaded, but it makes me feel that there is magic that can change lives.”

Some of the visitors, like Tammy St. John and her daughters Paige and Madelyne, said they felt that magic literally.
“I felt the touch of my grandfather’s hand,” said Paige St. John, who keeps a picture of her grandfather in a locket around her neck. “I love him so much and I never thought I’d feel him again. I feel like he’s watching over us.”

For others, the ceremonies were an opportunity to process the losses in their lives.

“Shortly after my dad died last year, I lost my job, and I don’t think I ever really took the time to grieve,” said Dallas Murphy, who traveled from South Carolina and attended both the Mourning Tea and the Dumb Supper with his wife, Kim. “Today was very emotional. Now that it’s done, I feel so much peace.”

Read more: Making time for loved ones lost - Medford, Massachusetts - Medford Transcript

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