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Reply To: Reflections Upon a Hawaiian Graveyard,” with John Bonaduce, Ph.D.”

#74807

John,

Though Joseph Campbell passed away October 30, 1987, for a number of years urban legend had him dying on October 31. I even know close friends and colleagues of Joe who thought his death had occurred on Halloween. This idea took hold of the public; for years, Campbell’s Wikipedia entry noted he had died on October 31.

Of course, at JCF our focus is on the facts rather than wishful thinking, so we would change the Wikipedia entry back to October 30, only to find within minutes that some well-intentioned individual or another would have “corrected” that to October 31. No matter how often we posted the accurate date on Wikipedia, it never took.

Eventually, in 2005, I snapped a photo of Joe’s grave marker with the October 30 date, and our web wizard posted that to Wikipedia; in light of the incontrovertible visual evidence, that punctured the urban legend and ended the constant back-and-forth. (The last time I visited Campbell’s entry, that photo was no longer up – likely because no one questions the October 30 date listed there anymore.)

This dynamic definitely intrigued me, leading me to believe that mythologization is an ongoing process in both the individual and the collective psyches, whether or not one is aware of it. I have to admit there is something deeply satisfying about believing a wise old soul who devoted his life to the study of myth and ritual passed away on Halloween – the Celtic Samhain – that traditional moment in the cycle of the year when the veil between this world and the next is thought to be at its thinnest.

Even in our contemporary world, despite records and facts that say otherwise, it is difficult to stand against an idea that seizes the popular imagination.

As you so eloquently point out, “Let us never forget” is the subtext of all memorials, personal or public. I wonder if this re-membering of the departed requires a degree of mythologization, writ large when it comes to iconic figures. In terms of objective fact, historians and theologians are aware Jesus was born nowhere near the Winter Solstice, nor did his death necessarily occur on the exact date as that of other dying-and-resurrected gods celebrated throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. Nevertheless, though actual facts and details may be off, that mythologization of heroic and religious figures does seem to mean we are less likely to forget them.

(I’ve noticed something similar when a family member dies: it’s not unusual for loved ones to share experiences that would appear, at best, to be easily overlooked coincidences on any other day, but are imbued with significance and meaning in relation to the death of a beloved friend or relative.)

Am I making sense? Do you have any thoughts on the relationship between death and the process of mythologization? Might whatever drives us to visit the graves of personal heroes, whether a Jim Morrison or Joseph Campbell, be related to the dynamic underlying pilgrimages to Jesusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre or India’s Bodh Gaya?