“ And in many ways, all of my characters are defined by their attitude to death and the possibility of death.”- J.K. Rowling
Hallowtide, the three days of All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints Day (or Hallowmas), and All Souls Day, is an ancient part of the Christian Year. Before becoming Catholic I thought of Halloween as morbid and I couldn’t understand how to celebrate All Souls, or the Day of the Dead. What I didn’t understand is that because of Christian faith we can confront death, celebrate the saints, and remember our beloved dead during Hallowmas in light of the Resurrection. We can enter into this important three days with great hope.
And, for me, one of the most helpful guides to understanding what Catholics believe about death and the communion of saints was J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.
The Harry Potter series is children’s literature, but it delves into a theme that we don’t often discuss with children: death. Loss emerges in the very first chapter of the series when we discover that the infant Harry’s parents have been murdered. As we watch Harry grow up and wrestle with this sorrow and lose others that he loves during the series, it should come as no surprise that Rowling wrote the books while processing the death of her own mother.
Since becoming a parent, I’ve thought a lot about our culture’s avoidance of death and I don’t think it’s helping our children. I think that the hesitation to take children to funerals and the tendency to shield them from discussion of death may be hindering them from learning to process death when it inevitably touches their lives and as they need to face their own mortality.
But how do we introduce this difficult topic? In story we have a safe space to encounter the experiences of the characters within. In the Harry Potter series in particular we can walk through the process of Harry’s grief with him and the tale can help shape our imagination when it comes to facing death.
But it’s not just because death is a theme in the series, but because it presents a very Christian view of death that makes it so valuable. Harry Potter reveals that death is not to be feared. It is not the end of a soul’s existence. We do not slip into nothingness, but live on. We don’t have to be afraid.
In a recent podcast Christy and I did with Nancy C. Brown about reading Harry Potter with children, she reminded me that the headmaster of Harry’s school, Albus Dumbledore tells Harry in the very first book, “To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”
And yet, we encounter characters in the series who do not face death with the courage that Dumbledore proclaims. The evil wizard Voldemort has a terror of death and a desire to avoid it at all costs. His life’s goal is to become immortal.
In the first book Voldemort attempts to steal the “sorceror’s stone” which would keep him alive indefinitely. Later in the series we discover that he has also committed horrifying crimes in order to split his own soul and house it separately from his body so that he cannot be killed. This terrible and perverse act of dark magic damages the soul almost irreparably–true repentance is the only cure. And yet Voldemort’s fear of death overshadows any concern for the good of his own soul.
In Harry Potter we learn that damaging our souls through cruelty or vice should be our fear, not the end of this life, a truth Dumbledore tries to explain to Voldemort to no avail.
“There is nothing worse than death, Dumbledore!” snarled Voldemort.
“You are quite wrong,” said Dumbledore…“Indeed, your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness.”
And Voldemort’s followers share his obsession with escaping death. They call themselves the Death Eaters referencing their desire to avoid the inevitable.
When Harry visits his parents’ grave in the final book he is upset by a quote that appears on their gravestone: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). At first glance Harry takes the quote to be in the same strain as Voldemort and the Death Eaters twisted goal of escaping death. But his friend Hermoine explains that the verse on his parents’ grave is quite different. It’s not about escaping death at all, but by living on after death.
Death is conquered not by twisting the natural order of things through evil means, but rather by living self-sacrificially with hope in the Resurrection–something Harry’s parents exemplified when they died in order to protect their son.
What Voldemort and his followers cannot grasp is that death can be conquered, but not by rending souls to manipulate extended life. They do not understand what Harry’s parents knew: love is more powerful than death. And as Christians because of the self-sacrificial love of Christ we can anchor our hope in the Resurrection.
Dumbledore and The Order of the Phoenix (wizards like Harry’s parents who fight dark magic) are a foil for Voldemort’s despicable Death Eaters. As John Granger points out in his book, How Harry Cast His Spell, the opposite of Death Eaters would be Life Eaters–a phrase that immediately conjures the idea of the Eucharist in which Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life offers himself as food and drink to the faithful. And the Phoenix in their title is a Christological symbol: a bird that resurrects after death.
So while Voldemort and his Death Eaters try to elude death by unnatural, vicious means, the Harry Potter series reveals that by living virtuously and courageously and sacrificing out of great love we can confront death unafraid knowing it is not the end, but the beginning of the next adventure.
But how are we to think of those we’ve lost? Are we completely cut off from the dead? Catholicism and HP don’t think so. One of the strangest Catholic teachings for this former southern Protestant to accept was the communion of saints and the idea that the saints in heaven can intercede on our behalf. In fact, Harry Potter was instrumental in giving me a sense of what the communion of saints could mean.
In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when Harry is walking to meet Voldemort during the Battle of Hogwarts in full knowledge that he will be laying down his own life for those he loves, he is given courage not only by Ron and Hermoine, his best friends, but by the dead. Using a magical object called the Resurrection Stone he is able to see and talk to his mother, father, godfather, and other deceased friends who love him.
Proud of his selflessness and bravery, Harry’s dead loved ones encourage him and comfort him that they will be helping him and will be present with him even when he cannot see them. They will support him as he walks to his death. His parents, friends, and godfather have not ceased to exist although they have passed on from this life. They continue loving. Their love for Harry can surpass even death and they are ever ready to help him and spur him on toward virtue.
Doesn’t that sound like the saints? We are bound to them by the love of Christ and that love cannot be diminished even after death. They are ready to bring our prayers before Our Lord and intercede on our behalf. And celebrating them is not dismal but hopeful!
Hallowtide doesn’t have to feel creepy or morbid because if we view it through a Christian lens it really is full of hope. On All Saints Day, we honor all the saints in Heaven. And there’s a lot of saints! What a party! And on All Souls Day we remember our dead and pray for their souls. Because death isn’t the end. It isn’t to be feared or escaped. It will be conquered by love–the self-sacrificial power of our Resurrected Lord. We can call on the saints to pray for us and lead us to virtue and love until–God-willing–we join them.
So this Hallowtide let’s face our mortality with courage. Let’s celebrate the glorious saints who have gone before us. And let’s pray for the souls in Purgatory remembering the grace and hope we share in the light of the all-surpassing love of Christ.
“Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all those who live without love.” -Albus Dumbledore