In Praise of the Day of the Dead
Today is the Day of the Dead, the Día de Muertos, Todos Santos (in some parts of Mexico, the Day of the Dead extends to November 2, and in even more remote areas, it’s an eight-day-long commemoration). Many of us who cannot claim Mexican heritage connect this day with folk art: with ornate sugar skulls, with whimsical skeleton figurines, with cut-out paper banners showing cavorting bags-of-bones.
Count me in. As I write, I can look around my house at two skeletons playing basketball, an articulated skeleton matador, a grinning skull rattle, a tile showing a skeleton pecking at a computer, José Guadeloupe Posada notecards (see the image at the top of this blog entry for this artist’s most iconic engraving, “La Catrina”), a miniature diorama of skeletons enjoying themselves at a tavern. Day of the Dead items have appealed to me for a long time; I love the combination of humor, the bizarre, the satiric, and the generation-to-generation craftsmanship.
Seven years ago, my mother died on the Day of the Dead. Coincidences are simply coincidences, I think. Even so, this particular coincidence has made me consider the Día de Muertos somewhat differently.
If one brushes away artistic display, the foundational acts for the Day of the Dead are to visit a deceased loved one’s burial place, to construct a home ofrenda (a memorial of food, flowers, textiles, and decorations), and to celebrate that person’s importance with a ceremonial meal, shared among family members here on earth and those who are not. It’s a family reunion with a clear focus: respect and love for the departed, plus recognition that they’re still important to the living.
In pre-colonial Mesoamerican belief systems, there’s not a clear-cut idea of heaven (or hell). Afterlife is neither reward nor punishment. To the Aztecs, for instance, the ‘ordinary dead’ go ultimately to Mictlan, where they exist more or less in a state-of -being quite similar to that they enjoyed, or endured, during their time on earth. People who die under extraordinary circumstances, like in war or in childbirth, go somewhere different. In all cases, it seems, the spirits of the deceased enjoy being remembered and feted, just as their descendants (or more sadly, their parents or siblings, as these belief structures were built when child mortality was rampant) feel more whole in the act of honoring their dead.
To me, raised as I was in a rather anemic Episcopalian religious tradition, this view of dead loved ones is profoundly attractive. No one is performing harp solos on clouds (or screaming in hellfire). But deceased family and friends do exist, in interaction with those they loved and who loved them. They’re not particularly meddlesome; indeed, their post-earthly lives are rather happy and fulfilling. Once a year, on the Day of the Dead, they appreciate reconnecting with those they care about. And having a special day to do so.
After my mother died, I was talking to my cousin Sarah about our losses (her mother, my Aunt Mary, died from cancer when her children were still young). Sarah made a comment that has stayed with me: that she envisioned her parents, my parents, and our other deceased family members enjoying bridge and cocktails ‘up in heaven,’ or someplace equivalent. Sadly, a couple of years later our much-loved last remaining aunt on our mothers’ side, Eleanor, died also, having been predeceased by her husband and, tragically, by her youngest son. In long-distance conversations during which we all were trying to comfort each other, we recalled the vision of the celestial cocktail party.
So the Day of the Dead is an excellent time to commemorate my mother – and my father, my aunts, my uncles, and my cousin. It’s not that I don’t think about them a lot; I do. But there’s something special about having a designated day to do that, something my own faith and culture traditions do not afford.
The day my mother died, seven years ago, looked remarkably like today – sunny, crisp, cool, autumnal, beautiful. My sister was here, and we were keeping vigil in our separate but connected ways. Mom had been really sick for a long time, but she died peacefully at home. Even though neither my sister nor I is religious in a conventional sense, we both thought that maybe Mom would be joining Dad and her sisters, and would no longer be in pain and afraid.
Therefore, today is a special day. The customs and beliefs surrounding the Day of the Dead are so very appropriate for commemorating my mom. She was a smart, beautiful woman who was perhaps best remembered for her generous hospitality. She knew how to throw cocktail parties. She knew how to make guests feel welcome (even, remarkably, my teenaged friends way back when, who honestly loved hanging out at our house). She had many other talents and accomplishments, but they may have been eclipsed by the times during which she lived. Nonetheless, creating a loving and welcoming home is nothing to be sneezed at.
She also had amazing patience, particularly with me. During trying times in my life, she would listen to hours of my anguish poured through the telephone, occasionally offering advice, often just being supportive. During triumphant times, she rejoiced. What she didn’t do, with me at least, was ask for support during her own times of travail. Until she became ill – and even then she didn’t exactly ask. It was more that her gratitude for what she shouldn’t have had to think twice about, that her daughters cared for her profoundly, was heartbreakingly obvious.
During her last weeks, a lot of my friends – and hers – congregated around her bedside. With cocktails and hors d’oeuvres and laughter and babies (she always loved babies, because they ‘didn’t talk back’), with which she participated as much as she was able. After her death, my sister hosted a wonderful party in her memory, attended by friends and relatives from all over. These events, featuring as they did people who loved her, food and drinks, even things resembling ofrendas (as in photos and memorabilia of Mom), partook of the Día de Muertos spirit.
Seven years later, I try to keep this spirit in my heart.
Cheers, Mom. And Dad, and all my other family members who are enjoying that cocktail party in the sky (or in Mictlan). We who remain miss you, and love you, and appreciate the deep impact you’ve had, and still have, on our lives. And as we grow even older, we keep learning to appreciate who you were/are, independent of your children . . . which may be the biggest token of respect we can give.
Mom, Dad, and me . . . in front of the first house they owned, in the barrens of Northern Wisconsin. Even though it subsequently was found to be infested with rats (that tried to eat me in my crib), it was a symbol of my parents’ attempt to make a good life for their family. They did have cocktail parties in ‘Rat House.’ Indomitable!