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Local View: Unlocking Easter’s mystery for all faiths

Barely an hour after arriving at Uncle Syl’s farm for Easter we got ourselves lost in the woods beyond the crop fields. City kids, we wandered off, amazed, eager to explore the countryside, drawn by the smell of sweet mud from the previous night’s rain.

But there was a secret thrill in being lost, since there were a dozen of us — cohorts, including my brothers and cousins and Syl’s collie Riley. Uncle Don Cichowski had come, too, since he still had some kid in him. And we could all confront delicious danger without panic, for how could anything go wrong with a 6-foot-4 Chicago attorney at the head of the pack?

Eventually, we followed Don to the edge of a steep dirt bank that plummeted 10 feet to a gravel road, which, he assured us, would lead us home in time for dinner. But after we took turns sliding down on our behinds, Riley remained at the top, looking forlorn. We called and clapped. He wagged his tail. We whistled. He sat, staring down at us.

We couldn’t leave. We couldn’t stay. Finally, Don directed that we take off down the road. Dutifully, we took off, not slowing until just before the first bend. I turned around just in time to witness the silhouette: Don, like an oak tree, arms spread wide, and Riley leaping toward him in the setting sun. I cried out for the others to see, but I was struck dumb.

My eyes opened and I was in bed. It was all a dream.

Don had been dead over 30 years, having succumbed to a massive heart attack at age 41. Yet I had just heard his confident, inimitable voice and had just watched him stumble slightly backward as he cushioned Riley’s fall. I lay still, savoring the dream fumes before they all dissolved in the wash of sunlight through the bedroom window.

A Freudian psychologist would interpret my dream, which was a replay of a past event, as a repressed longing, a wishful fantasy for the return of a charismatic relative. Likely most readers have had similar dreams in which the presence of a departed loved one is experienced in virtual reality. It’s as close to the joy and miracle of resurrection that we get.

The 17th-century Dutch philosopher Spinoza theorized that Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead, celebrated by Christians today on Easter Sunday, was also possibly a consequence of a dream of longing by Mary Magdalene or one of the disciples. For Catholics, it’s an article of faith. For all mankind, the possibility of continuance after death, be it a physical or abstract manifestation, is the ultimate mystery and our supreme hope.

The ABC-TV series, ”Resurrection,” based on the book, “The Returned,” by Jason Mott, probes mankind’s penultimate desire with a series of episodes depicting the return of dead individuals to their friends and families. Yet the concept of resurrection is too important and too elemental to our humanity for the confinement of 60 minutes of televised science fiction.

Encountering those we love in dreams, however, happens too infrequently. Sometimes never. We cannot before bedtime place an order, like picking a film from Netflix.

I’ll not soon forget my own mother’s pained look after I related a dream I had about my father, her late husband, and she told me how she’d give anything if only she could dream about him, too.

And it may not be helpful that in our culture it’s not only taboo to speak ill of the dead but to speak of them at all. Once the eulogy has been given and the funeral service has ended, it’s more than just the tomb that we block with an impossibly heavy stone: The existences of people who were vital parts of our own lives are purposely if inscrutably expurgated. It’s not a conspiracy. Call it manners. Custom. Superstition.

It’s also simple logic: We are loath to talk about someone whose death has caused pain, lest we dredge up more. And by the time the pain has healed or at least dulled, memories fade.

But it’s a different story in other cultures.

The year I spent taking classes at Lac Court Oreilles Ojibwa College in Hayward, I was invited to a Ghost Feast, an Ojibwa custom that occurs on the anniversary of a loved one’s death. Appropriately named, it’s a dinner party for an individual who died, and a chair and a place setting are reserved for them at the banquet table. Guests at the feast recount whatever they want about the honoree’s life, and there is usually much laughter and happy tears.

It’s as fine a custom as I’ve ever witnessed. It resurrects not only the cherished dead but the associated wisdom, love and connections that will never die. Regardless of one’s faith, we would all do well to emulate this tradition in some way.

Easter Sunday is an appropriate time to recall and celebrate those lives while educating youngsters about their ancestry. The empowering, therapeutic impact of such a tradition might well counterbalance some of the cynicism in contemporary society. And by moving the stone of silence from the entrance of the tomb, we can pass along the gift of “resurrection” to our children and grandchildren as well.

David McGrath of Hayward is an emeritus professor of English for the College of DuPage in Illinois and is the author of "The Territory.” Readers may contact him at