11/09/2010 06:43 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Death Feeds Life Feeds Death

Mid-autumn, when all of nature seems to be dying, has long been the season to observe feasts of the dead in Northern cultures. These death days at once mourn and rejoice the death of the bounty of the land, lamenting the demise of the animals and plants while at the same time being thankful for their death, which brings us life. In hunting cultures, the corpses of the slain animals were commonly wined and dined upon in style, in great ceremony as befits a hero, a banquet, or a roast, as it were. Meat was placed in the mouth of the dead beast so that its spirit would gossip about how hospitable these people were. The Inuits always give a slain seal a ladle full of fresh water for this reason, which hopefully encourages other animals to approach the hunters and volunteer to be killed, too.

Do we not owe our own predecessors who gave us life the same courtesy that we extend to the animals that keep us alive? The celebration of death's feeding life must be expanded to include the care and feeding of the dead by the living. In ancient Persia, food and drink was placed in the hall of the dead. The dead are called into supper in Cambodia on the Festival of the Dead: "Oh, you who are our ancestors, who are departed, deign to come and eat!" In China, the feast of the dead, Chung Yüan, is called "The Hungry Ghost Festival."

The Dahomey of West Africa prepare a harvest ritual called "Setting the Table" and invite the spirits of the ancestors. In Sicily the table is set for those returning from the grave on I Morti, "The Dead." Families in Central and South America and parts of Italy hold picnics in the cemetery with the past generations, right on their graves, a sort of breakfast in bed for the dead.

At festivals of the dead everywhere, special treats were featured for the enjoyment of those on both sides of the borderline of whatever it is that divides life and death, this world and the next. Pan de muerto, "bread of the dead," round sweetbread decorated on top with baked dough, bones and colored sugar, is baked once a year in Mexico on the Day of the Dead.

In Germany, people consume seelen brot, "soul bread," to save a soul from purgatory. Italians eat sweets created of egg white, chopped almonds and sugar shaped like tibia and skeletons, ossi da morto, "bones of the dead." Sicilians bake elaborate ritual breads for the dead. Armuzzi, "souls of the dead," are shaped like two hands in repose, crossed over a breast, the fingers spread wide like wings.

By acknowledging those who walked before us, we can set our own life into context. The practice of paying homage to past generations -- the veneration of the ancestors -- keeps that connection intact through the ages. We put our own paths into perspective by recognizing the trailblazers who made our lives possible. Those from whom we have inherited our world. Those to whom we owe our lives. Those whose blood, pain, guilt and triumph travels through our own brains and bodies. To those, who are our roots, we toast our thanks.

L'Chaim! To life!