Judith Fein doesn’t care for small talk. On a rainy fall morning at the Plaza Café in downtown Santa Fe, she isn’t interested in chatting about the weather or even politics. She sets down her fork, rests her elbows on the table, and gets down to business. She wants to know if I’ve ever communicated with the dead.
She has. When she was 20 years old and standing at her father’s grave in Queens, New York, bereft with grief over his untimely death, he spoke to her.
America is a death-phobic culture, Fein says, and people don’t want to talk about this sort of thing. But after five decades of active communication with the other side, she’s tired of hiding what she knows to be true. So she’s written a book, How to Communicate With the Dead: And How Cultures Do It Around the World, which combines her experiences as a travel writer and her firm conviction that all of us have the power to contact our deceased loved ones.
“It’s a very upbeat book that is about different cultures around the world and the wild, crazy, unusual, moving, and important ways that they communicate with people who have gone — because they are born and raised with the conviction that life does not end in death.” She wrote How to Communicate With the Dead after penning an article about her experiences for Psychology Today in 2014 and receiving thousands of letters and emails from people who are “ashamed, in hiding, because they’ve had communication with the dead, or they’ve lost someone they want to communicate with. I said, ‘Let’s put a spotlight on this.’ ”
Fein talks about How to Communicate With the Dead at 7 p.m. on Day of the Dead, Friday, Nov. 1, at El Museo Cultural. The event is preceded at 4 p.m. by a Day of the Dead shrine show by local artists.
Día de los Muertos — or Day of the Dead — is among the most important annual celebrations in Mexico and in Mexican-American communities. The two-day fiesta is held on Nov. 1 (All Saints’ Day) and Nov. 2 (All Souls’ Day). The dead are honored through altars erected in homes, cemeteries, and public spaces. What follows is a list of Día de los Muertos celebrations, Santa Fe-style.
At her father’s grave, he told her to take care of her mother. “Don’t give up on your writing, either,” he said. She writes that she sat in her car afterward, wondering if she’d imagined his voice. She decided she hadn’t. “It was the word ‘either’ that startled me. Either what? If the voice spoke in my imagination, it would have used words the way I do … But I would never have structured a sentence that way.”
Before that moment, Fein was not a believer. Fifty years later, she insists that she still isn’t, because talking to the dead isn’t about belief. “It just is,” she says, again abandoning her breakfast to make her point. “I’m very skeptical. I’m not a leap-into-everything-and-believe-it kind of person at all. It’s real.”
For Fein, taking readers on a world tour of what she calls “life ceremonies” — births, weddings, funerals, and the like — is a way to get them comfortable with the concept of death and open their eyes to cultures where the end of life on Earth is embraced as the beginning of a new adventure. She has visited countless countries with her husband, the photographer Paul Ross. She has written pieces for Smithsonian Magazine, The Dallas Morning News, Perceptive Travel, and New Mexico Magazine, among other publications, and has contributed to the public-radio shows “Savvy Traveler” and “All Things Considered.” She is the author of Life Is a Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel (2012) and The Spoon From Minkowitz: A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands (2014).
In How to Communicate With the Dead, she recalls trips to a couple of dozen locations, including Ukraine, South Africa, Brazil, Israel, Turkey, Syria, Japan, and Norway. Her accounting is largely personal in that she doesn’t attempt an analysis of what she encounters. She talks about the traditions and rituals that she witnesses with participants and other locals, but we are seeing the world through Fein’s eyes. She is often brash in her questions during her travels (as well as at breakfast), though she tries to never intrude where she isn’t wanted. She loves the foreign and exotic. “Exotic, to me, is anything that is not me,” she says. She doesn’t temper her awe when she hears or sees something that thrills her.
“This really startling thing happened when I was in Mexico. I don’t think it’s in the book,” she says. She met an artist whose father had recently died. When Fein offered her condolences, the woman said, “I love death.” Fein recalls that it wasn’t that the woman had been waiting for her father to die or was happy he was gone, but that she was excited to encounter him in another dimension. Fein marvels that, during her time in Mexico, she heard two other people use that phrase: “I love death.”
The ability to openly embrace whatever comes next is a gift, Fein says, because when you lose somebody, “There are no smart words to say. No wisdom. You can show compassion. You can talk about the person. But there’s an emptiness.” Reaching out to the departed, or welcoming their contact, is a way of staying connected.
“Have you lost anyone dear to you?” she asks me. “Would you try it? I have instructions.” Petite with short white hair that falls across her forehead, Fein has large blue eyes that are wide open as she speaks. Her questions are pointed but kind.
Fein was raised Jewish, and says that, contrary to popular belief, there is a religious basis for Jewish belief in the afterlife. Though many contemporary Jews tend to focus on life on Earth, Fein writes that her grandmother often spoke of olam ha-ba — Hebrew for “the world to come.” In a chapter toward the end of the book, Fein quotes a rabbi who told her that Jews see the afterlife as their primary existence: “As it says in the [Jewish text] Ethics of the Fathers, ‘This physical existence is nothing but a preparation for our true spiritual existence that occurs after we leave our physical bodies.’ ”
Fein’s book contains information about different ways to contact the dead or to be open to being contacted. She strongly recommends using a yahrzeit candle, which is traditionally lit by Jews to commemorate the anniversary of a loved one’s passing. (“Yahrzeit” is Yiddish for “time of year.”) Depending on where you live, the candles may be available in the kosher foods section at the grocery store, or you might have to search a little by going to a synagogue, a Judaica store, or looking online. Fein says that getting the right candle is part of the process of communicating with the dead. “From the moment you decide to buy a candle, you have already started,” she writes.
She includes step-by-step instructions for what to do once you have your yahrzeit candle. “Remember,” she writes, “it takes two people to make it happen: you and the deceased. Both have to be willing and ready.”
Outside the Plaza Café, rain drenches the tourists milling about on the Santa Fe Plaza. Leaves that have recently turned from green to gold blow from the trees. When I finally admit that I have, indeed, heard the voices of the dead, Fein grins. “You should have said that first! I teach how to communicate, or how to recognize it when it happens to you. Accept it! It’s part of life. Go big — don’t go small. It’s such a source of comfort to know we’re not alone in the world. It’s not about death and dying. It’s about living and those who have left.” ◀
▼ How to Communicate With the Dead: And How Cultures Do It Around the World
▼ A presentation about Judith Fein’s new book
▼ 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 1
▼ El Museo Cultural, 555 Camino de la Familia,
▼ No charge; 505-992-0591, elmuseocultural.org/event