Perfumes to Honour the Dead

October 31st marks a special time of the year, from astronomic point of view: Tonight marks the halfway point between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice. This is the entrance to the darkest part of the year. It is the night when the barriers between this world and the world of the dead or the spirit world are very thin, allowing passage from one realm to the other. 

Even if you don't celebrate Samhain, Hallowe'en or Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) - this night is a befitting time to remember our ancestors, far and near. Light a candle to those we don't remember because they died before we were born, or we were too young when they passed. And for those who were near and dear - this can be done joyfully by preparing their favourite food, or wearing their perfume. 
Incense and scents in general, for their invisible presence, have historically been the gateway for the underworld, the spirit realm and divinity. Many cultures still use incense in their rituals related to death, funerals and memorials. 

The Egyptians were especially elaborate about their preparations for the last journey: They would pack their dead's chambers with all their belongings, including vials of perfumes and cosmetics, and most famously - ensured the body stays as true to form as possible through a meticulous process of mummification, which involved many fragrant aromatics, such as myrrh, pine resin, cedar, cinnamon, juniper and later also frankincense (in the Roman era). 

In both China and Japan, incense is burnt daily in domestic altars, to honour the ancestors. In China it is mostly a sandalwood based incense, and in Japan incense sticks of many complex aromatics. In India, incense is burnt on the funeral pyres, to help elevate the spirits of the dead to higher realms, and also to mask the intense smell of burning flesh. Of course, the wealthier the deceased is, the more incense can be burnt. I've even read of using sandalwood as the fuel for pyres of the richest people. 

Tobacco is used by the First Nations to communicate with the spirits - almost as a key to their world.  It is also believed that offering tobacco will tell other plants that we're seeking their help and guidance. The Cree people would bury their dead holding tobacco and sweetgrass incense, and also personal belonging that would be considered as an extension of themselves, such as their pipe. 

The Mexicans use copal incense to show the ancestors' spirits the way back into our world for their annual visit, so that they won't get lost. Marigold flowers adorn the graves and portals through which these spirits are expected to enter. This tradition is rooted in the Aztec customs of giving the Gods offerings of maize (corn), or else - copal moulded to the shape of maize foods, such as grains or ears of corn, and even tamales and tortillas. They also buried the dead with pieces of "jade" - copal resin painted in green, as food for their last journey. 

Some of the practices are kept alive today, and others faded away while others disappeared because they seemed to have very little hold in our current reason-obsessed culture. However, one thing is for certain: when you bring forth a scent or an aroma associated with a beloved person who has passed away, you're making that person alive, even if just in your memories. 

Tonight I will slice a red grapefruit and uncork a bottle of Old Spice in memory of my grandfather. These fond memories and the love our ancestors poured into us are eternal. 

Odourama for the Dead

In honour of my dearly departed grandfather, I've set to create a little shrine in his memory, which I have fondly decided to call "Odourama" (you'll see why shortly). Today is Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) - the day when Mexicans honour their loved ones who have passed away. Inviting their spirits with their favourite foods, objects and hobbies, and inviting them to the family dinner, quite literally.

The normalization of death, making it part of life, is a new concept to me and foreign to my culture. Many years have passed since my grandfather's premature death (on my 13th birthday), and I have grown up much more since. I never had the tools to really cope with this death, and I am thankful that no one close to me has passed in all these years. Creating a shrine that will symbolically invite my grandfather's spirit for just one day (we don't want to disturb the dead from their peaceful rest) is stepping away from my heritage and traditions; creating it prove to be something very personal and meaningful to me.

If scent has the power to banish evil spirits, surely it can invite the spirits of our loved ones. It may not be as meaningful to the spirit as it is to the living person making the invitation. I was only a child when my grandfather passed, and I can only remember some of the things my grandfather enjoyed in his earthly life. Strong black espresso, bittersweet chocolate, grapefruit and cornflakes for breakfast, and Old Spice cologne (which I could not find a trace of anywhere). He also picked Vol de Nuit for my grandmother's signature perfume many years ago, so I put a bottle of that in lieu of Old Spice. I'm sure that smelling my grandma's favourite perfume will please him just as much!

Next year I will build a real one with little skeleton sculpture to celebrate his life's accomplishments. But for now, using the essential oils of grapefruit, coffee and marigold (the Day of the Dead symbolic flower) work just as effectively. It is all about creating the space in your home for those no longer with us. Because we are physical beings, we need those physical reminders, even if once a year, that our loved ones still are with us in some invisible way. Now I'm going to brew some dark coffee. I've already got the coffee table set for three - with After Eight (his favourite chocolate), some cookies, and the great granddaughter he's never lived long enough to meet.

Choisya for the Lost Souls

Choisya in October: what a strange sight & smell in the the fall. Rare for them to bloom here in autumn. It's usually freezing cold by the end of October, but not this year. 
The contrast of heliotropin and methyl anthranilate on a backdrop of ripe rosehips and fallen leaves is intriguing and surprising. Choisya (AKA Mexican orange or mock orange blossom) is my flower of choice for Day of the Dead. And if I were Mexican I would probably anoint an altar with Old Spice in memory of my grandfather. Instead, I went to the Parade of Lost Souls and sprayed Black Licorice perfumer all around.

Night of Hallows

Halloween Special, originally uploaded by em`lia.

"Halloween is a time that reconfirms the social bond of a neighborhood (particularly the bond between strangers of different generations) by a ritual act of trade. Children go to lengths to dress up and overcome their fear of strangers in exchange for candy. And adults buy the candy and overcome their distrust of strange children in exchange for the pleasure of seeing their wild outfits and vicariously reliving their own adventures as children". (Richard Seltzer, "Why Bother to Save Halloween")

It took me no less than 11 years to start to slightly enjoy or even remotely appreciate Halloween. The notion of celebrating death is very foreign to me and how I grew up, and the scary and gruesome imagery of the modern incarnation of the holidays are off-putting to say the least. The Real Origins of Halloween make more sense of this special holiday and shed some light on the issues surrounding this holiday and how it is celebrated today. Perhaps we all need a little scare to bring us back to full life.

Death is really part of life. And because we live in such a sterile, generational-segregated society, death seems a lot more foreign and unknown and therefore even more frightening than it ever was before. Halloween seems to be an exceptional occasion where we can deal with our fears. But what is death is not scary at all? What if it is really part of life? What if we can communicate with the dead, our dearly departed ones who seemingly left our lives forever?

According to various pagan traditions around the world, it is possible to communicate and connect with the dead. For example, most people in Japan do this every day, burning incense in home shrines for the ancestors. And they are not the only ones. It is interesting that incense smoke or perfume is incorporated into different techniques of inviting the dead and the spirits to communicate.

Halloween is the best time of the year to do so, as the barriers between the world of the living and the world of the dead are thin and it is easier to travel in both directions. Spirits of the dead can visit our world and vice verse.

"And the clothes you left, they lie on the floor
And they smell just like you (...)" (Avril Lavigne, "When You're Gone")

We become greatly attached to the scent of our family members, friends and lovers. When we smell their favourite food or perfume or cologne, we immediately think of them or can even sense their presence. This is because the sense of smell has a direct connection to the part of the brain that processes emotions. Our smelling organ (the olfactory bulbs) are in fact part of the brain. And when a person leaves our life - because of death or other reason - it is usually their smell that we miss the most. With the absence of the person, their unique smell dissipates and there's no way to bring it back. Or is there?

People who were visited by the spirit or soul of a loved one have witnessed a familiar scent - a perfume or aroma that the person loved in their life in this world. The Mexicans, for example, burn copal resin as incense to attract the spirits of the dead, and also for protection. Rituals from around the world designed to invoke spirits of the dead often include burning incense. Incense has a powerful impact on the psyche - incense and agarwood, for example, both bring a person into a meditative state of mind. And also, the thick smoke from the incense served as a stage for the shaman/witches' imagination. Burnt incense, similarly to their essential oils, are mostly heavy "base notes". Resins and gums such as frankincense, galbanum, myrrh, opoponax and more. And since theyr contain a high percentage of essential oils, they really come out clearly over the embers or charcoal, even more so than the precious woods (sandalwood, agarwood). Considering that in ancient times, the alchemists believed essential oils to be the spirit of the plant, it is not surprising that these very same resins are to this day used for increasing spiritual awareness, and perhaps even communicates with other spirits than our own.


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