My brother, Rick, died as a young man, not even 50 years old. A fire-fighter, Rick suffered related long term health issues. They caught up with him long before his time was due. Older than me, I looked up to him as many younger sisters do. I remember him as adventurous, jolly and complicated.
However, I am not focusing on my brother as I write, but on my “remembering.” I think of him often, aside from September 2nd recollections (his birthday). I set aside another day each year in particular for memories of him and others – Day of the Dead.
It may seem odd that my all-American household would observe this as a special holiday. Perhaps it was the influence of living so long in Arizona, but we make the day a special one. Ours is a modern version. But what about the historical memorial holiday?
Day of the Dead, more appropriately known as Dia de Los Muertos, is a ritual over 3,000 years old. Portrayed in Mexican folk art with dancing, singing, playing, joyful skeletons, it’s festive. Loved ones make an effort to commemorate their already-departed with songs, music or activities. All the better if those activities were beloved by the beloved dead. [I like the idea in this picture — celebrating with a nap.]
In the eyes of the “Early Church,” Dia de los Muertos was sacrilegious with its death masks, calacas and calaveras (skeletons and skulls), processions and ofrendas (offerings left on altars for the deceased). Yes, definitely frowned upon. It was celebrated in the summertime as a real party. On that day many Mexicans, and others in Hispanic lands, would bring (and still bring) picnics to the graveyards. Festooned in beautiful dresses or skeleton masks, entire families of mothers, fathers, children, brothers, sisters and grands, transform a place of death to one very much alive.
Learning of its origins with the Aztecs perhaps 3000 years previous, the 16th century Spaniards were aghast by it all. Yet they never seemed able to quash the non-Christian festivities.
A minuscule tutorial:
In Christianity, All Saints Day and All Souls Day are separate occasions. The first (on November 1st) is to honor saints. On the following day (November 2nd), All Souls Day is a time to pray that all souls make it to heaven. The night before this duo starts is sometimes called All Saints Eve, which is also known as All Hallow’s Eve, a time when evil can be manifested. “Hallow” means “holy” and “een” a suffix abbreviation for “evening.” You can see where this is going and how the secular Halloween came into existence. ——
Unmistakably, to appease the church, and avoid greater chastisement, elements of the Day of the Dead celebrations merged with features of Christianity. The ‘pagan’ summer time event was moved to its current November 1st and 2nd dates, immediately following Halloween. To most participants, despite the showy altar decorations, flowers, food, drink, mariachi bands and more food, it remains a spiritual event. Unsurprisingly, like many holidays, it has taken on trappings of humanistic and commercial aspects. In Arizona, the 99-cent stores are chock-full of decorations and items merging Halloween with Dia de Los Muertos. [Merchandise made in China of course.]
There is a practicality to the activities taking place in cemeteries where loved ones are buried. Participants clean the tombs or gravestones, leaving them looking as fresh as the flora used to adorn them. Amidst the music, tequila and mescal, it is a party with purpose.
Day of the Dead is not a time to be scared of death – but a time to chuckle around the corners of it. Surely, no one is looking for a fast track, but simply demonstrating no fear of that grimmest of reapers. You will often hear people say it’s not about death at all, but “it is a celebration of life.”
Above all, this time is a tribute to loved ones. Honoring their spirit. You want to remember a person – that’s what it’s all about. That’s pretty spiritual. However, one reason the custom has lost adherence to various rituals has nothing to do with lost spiritually, but instead is the outcome of mobility. Relocating out of state like me, or even out of country, makes it hard to visit graves of loved ones. Sign of the times, and all that. Yet, it doesn’t mean we can’t honor memories away from graveside. Create our own tradition.
The familial and community happenings described above are customary. They aren’t mine (for my house). We have a quiet memorial. Celebratory in our own way. The motivation is to set aside time – even if just a moment – to remember (and miss) people no longer with us. Neither my husband nor I have a remaining grand parent or parent. We include them. But we also include friends who have been important to us and remain in our hearts. So what is my tradition?
Building our own Tradition
- During the year we keep small pieces of used (but no longer useful) candles – hopefully still with a wick.
- Halloween time reminds us to melt our pieces of candle down into one. Some of ours have looked lovely, prepared with ice in old milk containers, as we all experimented with in grammar school or scouts. Other attempts have yielded results looking like a slop of pink oatmeal in a pie tin. It doesn’t matter. As long as we can manage incorporating a useful wick, it’s workable. Sometimes we add new wicks. Preparation takes us less than a half-hour. To avoid pot cleaning, we have kept the wax tidbits in an old coffee can throughout the year and melt them in a double boiler to liquefy before the next step (like pouring into the cut milk jug). Moreover, nothing says you can’t use new candles.
- On the morning of Day of the Dead, we light the candle together (each with our own match). Sometimes we speak about who the candle is for (often multiple folks); sometimes we speak not at all and prepare the candle in silence.
- We agree on at least one fun thing to do that day (together or separate) to celebrate both our remembered friends or family – and our own lives. The concept of something ‘fun’ is to convey enjoyment to those no longer able to take part in such activities.
- Finally, we allow the candle to burn (in a safe place) for the whole day until it burns out (or the witching-hour of midnight strikes, whichever is first). I think we secretly prefer the times it burns out naturally. Otherwise, remembrances seem to catch in our throat and make a slightly stressful sigh if we need to blow out the flame prematurely.
Obviously, our tradition is not a big ta-do. We don’t send cards, give gifts or spend unnecessary money to acknowledge this day. It’s low-key in terms of how Americans tend to ‘party.’ Still, it allows us heart-felt thoughts, which are on-going during the day as we catch glimpses of the enduring flame. It is a time to demonstrate internal respect for the lives of those once loved.
Modifying the tradition of Day of the Dead is no more disrespectful than those special days we alter in more familiar holidays. Whether you use the trappings adopted in my house, or if you establish some of your own, I hope this occasion might “do your heart good.” “Doing your heart good” is really meant to say that this bittersweet custom may be good for healthy attitude, emotions, revisiting memories, shrinking any leftover guilt, stress-reduction and grief. The Day of the Dead is more for those of us still living.
Note: In 2008 the tradition of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) was included as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Title: Day of Dead woman Pexels 9177 via Pixabay
Napper for Day of the Dead #1826742_640 via Pixabay
Day of Dead Mask via Pixabay #607699_640