Honoring Death: Dia de los Muertos
Pondering death teaches me about living. I have learned that to honor life, I must also honor death. But recognizing that death is a natural part of the process of living is not something most of us want to face. It is hard to come to terms with the idea that death isn’t something to be feared but is a reminder to celebrate the life that was lived, to celebrate the life we are living.
Why It’s Important to Me
I have thought about death much of my life. At the age of nine, my six-year brother died of brain cancer. No one talked about “it,” and “it” had all happened so fast. Scared and hurt and angry, I as a 9-year-old could not make sense of this. I remember crying a whole lot, alone in my bed at night. Time passed and the tears lessened but the deep sadness stayed.
Then in 10th grade, one of my closest girlfriends was killed instantly in a car accident. Again, no warning, no time to prepare, no time to say goodbye, no time to say sorry – and still, no one wanted to talk about “it” and my sadness etched itself deeper into my soul. Time passed and the tears lessened but the deep sadness stayed.
So death rooted itself deeply into my psyche. During most of my life I have thoughtfully reflected about death and life and the meaning of it all – alone. There was not a community for me to express my confusion, my anger, my questions.
‘Tis the Season
Each year, this season of Halloween, of All Hallow’s Eve, of All Saints Day and All Soul’s Day nudges me gently back into the mysteries of death. I love this time of year when at last the heavy evening summer air turns crisp and I open all my windows before I go to bed, awakening each morning snuggled under my cotton blanket. Aware that the bright summer daylight hours are waning, I wait for our abundance of southern green to fade into yellow and red. I anticipate witnessing our rich abundant plant life beginning to slow down, moving gradually towards dormancy, towards death. This time of year urges me to remember the importance of quiet reflection, of gentle stillness, of poignant tears, and of bitter-sweet memories. I also remember how my life changed when I experienced Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca, Mexico.
My years of traveling to Mexico to study their indigenous cultural and spiritual traditions, enriched and informed my life in innumerable ways. Meeting with curandros, traditional healers, enlightened my life in profound ways. Experiencing insightful limpias, traditional healing rituals, opened my mind to different ways of “knowing.” Participating in the spiritual cleansing ceremonies of Temazcals, a type of sweat lodge or steam bath, broadened my world view of what is possible. But it was participating in the fiestas of the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca that was the most profound.
Mexico gave me a community that wholeheartedly embraces death with vibrancy. Day of the Dead is filled with thrilling explosions of color, with wafting aromas of marigolds and spicy chocolate moles, and with altars and shrines to the dead everywhere you look. It is a feast for the senses. Oh how my life would have been different if I had lived within these traditions. Imagine living in a country where every single year there is a three day celebration to honor the dead. Business as usual grinds to a halt and everyone gets to work building their altars. Some are created inside homes but most are placed outside so that everyone can come by share experiences.
The markets and street side vendors are ready to sell you whatever you might need. Beautifully colored sugar skulls are representative of the souls of the departed. Cempazuchil flowers (marigolds) that are believed to guide the spirits back to Earth. Candles and papel pecado, colorful tissue paper cut into elaborate designs are always included in the altars. Then there is the absolutely delicious Día de Muertos bread with it’s sweet anise flavorings. Food is an important element of this tradition as it it another way to honor the dead – preparing and “displaying” what the deceased enjoyed feasting on the most.
Participating in their rituals allowed me the time to ponder the mysteries of death and share my stories of loss. For the first time I was allowed to grieve, to mourn within a living community
How It All Started
October 2005, Sue McClam and I were feeling “homesick” for the vibrantly alive celebrations of death we had experienced in Mexico. We sat outside at the Five Points Starbucks and thought of hopping on the next plane but instead wondered if we could we bring what we had found so meaningful there, here? After getting approval from the 5 Points Association, we began to create. Having no idea what kind of response we would have, Sue and I sat that Halloween night in 2005 proudly looking at the altar we created.
First came the children. While gathering for the annual 5-Points Halloween costume contest, they were drawn to the candles. A sign by our basket of votives invited passersby to light a candle to remember someone they had lost. Older kids helped the younger ones light the candles and place them in the glass votives. We overheard one child no more than 6 years old asking a younger child, “Now who are you remembering?” The little voice sang back, “my Nana.”
A mother helped a little girl in an angel costume. She said, “Now you hold the candle and think about who you want to remember.” Without hesitation came the list, “my great grandma, my grandpa, my fish and my bird.”
A young man from Mexico came by and noticed that we did not have any Day of the Dead bread. He disappeared for 20 minutes and came back with four loaves. He had driven out to a local Mexican market to buy it for us. He stayed by the altar for a few hours enjoying the music and the lights from the growing number of candles. He said he hadn’t seen a Day of the Dead altar in 5 years.
About seven years ago, Healing Icons® began a partnership with Palmetto Luna, a 501c3 that fosters an understanding of the Hispanic/Latino culture by promoting artistic creation. They now do the lion’s share of the work with the addition of traditional music, dance and crafts. This has truly deepened the roots of this Day of the Dead Annual Tradition.
Sharing our Stories of Loss
Stories are told, memories shared, our sense of community strengthened.
For a string of days and nights usually under clear skies moonlit skies, our Day of the Dead Altar stands ready to receive. Our community takes time to remember – time to honor those who have come before us, those who have touched our lives indelibly. Some come and sit during lunch hour, some dash through in-between appointments; some are dressed in spooky Halloween attire, some stay long into the night and share stories…young and old, poor and wealthy, Black, White, Hispanic, Oriental, Indian.
All walks of life come to remember….together. The altar is available to the community day and night. Everyone is invited to bring a candle, a flower, a photograph or an object symbolic of their loss and add it to the altar. Sometimes notes and letters are nestled within the flowers and candles.
We remember fresh new stinging losses.
We remember past haunting poignant losses.
We remember those who did not have enough time of this planet.
“I am so glad you are here. I didn’t know what this was but a friend just lost her baby and I need to light a candle for them. Thanks you for being here.”
We remembered parents and grandparents who were blessed to live long full lives.
We remember young husbands lost to war.
“I remember coming back to my parent’s home with my baby daughter after my husband died in Vietnam and trying so hard to be brave. I’d turn on the shower and weep and weep. I hid my tears, not wanting to upset my parents. I am here to remember again.”
We remember wives, husbands, sisters, brothers, friends and children who lost the battle with cancer.
We remember our Aunts and Uncles.
“I remember the day I was with my cousin and we were going to the beach. My Aunt Janet came in and said in her very authoritarian voice, “Girls it is a beautiful day to drive to the country and paint. Go to your room and ask yourself what God would want you to do…Go to the beach or come with me and paint” Guilt made us choose painting.
We remember tragic losses.
“Our friend was swept away by a wave and never returned. He is still missing.”
We remembered the thousands of our young women and men who have died serving our country.
We remember those who lost their lives during our floods and hurricanes.
The Day of the Dead was named an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2003.
Is there a Day of the Dead Tradition in your community?
If not, we encourage you to start one.
We also encourage you to share a remembrance….
Thanks for reminding me that death does not have to be a subject that is off limits to talk about…especially to children.
Thank you for this, what a wonderful idea. Julia and I were talking about Dia de los muertos, we have the memories of our father passing October 30, then our mother 2 years later. She was from Mexico we loved her culture and always celebrated. I will share this information, so close to home!
Selena, I hope you will stop by the altar in Five Points this week. There are festivities on Saturday from 5 – 8. I miss seeing you and hope you are well.
Heidi, I grew up in your husband’s neighborhood, playing kickball, and all the things, we young kids did in the 50’s, thank you for such a beautiful rememberence of the season I call Samhain (Celtic). In this year alone, I lost my son, and my father. My father, within the last week. It’s fresh, it does sting….but his passing shook me out of the “numb” place I had been for several years…I am finally grieving my son…and other “losses” over the last 5 years…it really is amazing how honoring the dead will open your soul, and nourish your life in so many unexpected ways!
Lindsay, Thank you fro your poignant words! Last week, I celebrated Samhain with a small group of close women friends at Folly beach. We got to view the full “huntress” moon rising out of the ocean – she was in her fullness and glowed a bright radiant orange. I am thankful you have been able to open your heart to grief – It was one of the most difficult aspects of life. It takes much inner strength and courage.
I loved reading about this, Heidi. And, I didn’t know about your young brother. I’m so very sorry that you had to go through not only the loss but the emotional aloneness.
You and I share having been caretaker to – and then losing – parents. That loss has thrown me into a pool of, “What’s It All About, Alfie?” … the water is deep but not too cold or murky, thank goodness … but especially unsettling in this tumultuous political time. Reading your acknowledgment of death’s acknowledgment, helped! Thank you!
Linda, We are soul sisters in this journey. And yes, it sure does shake the world upside down and inside out. Glad this helped a bit.
At the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, we have had a Dia de los Muertos altar since 2010, when Julian Zugazagoitia became our Director. Julian, as everyone calls him, is originally from Mexico and his mother was a theatre director, so even better. Julian commissions an artist to fill our entire Kirkwood Hall with a creation. Visitors are invited to remember dear ones who are no longer with us. There are special events for chldren. Each year, I look forward to seeing the new creation and putting a card on the altar. It is a very emotional celebration.
Liz, How wonderful for you and your community. I’d love to see some photographs. I’ll look on line and see if I can find some documentation of past years. Maybe I can convince our museum here to do likewise.
Wonderful blog, Heidi. Thank you for all the gifts you contribute to our community. I was honored to participate in a ritual of remembrance—-African—-with Malidoma Some’. It was an all night affair and quite powerful. My Christian heritage celebrates All Soul’s Day and All Saint’s Day, and those are meaningful and important celebrations, especially the music, but lack the vibrancy and active participation of other cultures. Thank you so much for this!
Thank you Amy. I as well have experienced the powerful African Grief Ritual but with his deceased X-wife – Sobonfu. It was a weekend that I will never forget. I am glad you enjoyed this post. Death has been a “friend” some quite some time.