Día de los Muertos

Honoring the dead in the land of the living

A man stands next to the grave of a loved one during a Day of the Dead celebration in La Paz, Bolivia.(CNS photo/David Mercado, Reuters)
I’ve never celebrated Día de los Muertos. I’ve never heard La Lupe speak of celebrating it, either. But I’ll get back to that in a minute.

A lot of people wrongly think that Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) is celebrated on Halloween but it is, in fact, celebrated on November 1 — All Saints Day — for babies and November 2 — All Souls Day — for everyone else that has passed away. People mark the day with huge parties/parades and faces painted to look like skeletons. They make elaborate paper maché skeletons or skeleton puppets and dance all through the night. Families set up ofrendas dedicated to deceased loved ones with pictures, flowers, skulls, and food. What is especially touching about the day is that many families go to gravesites of their loved ones and sometimes eat the person’s favorite meal over their grave as a way of breaking bread with them once again.

This can seem weird and kind of supernatural but it is a great tribute to the dead. It is all done with the utmost reverence and respect. It is to show our loved ones that they are not forgotten and that they remain a part of us even if they are not physically with us. When seen through this lens, the holiday is a beautiful expression of loyalty and love.

Even though I have never celebrated Día de los Muertos, the closeness that Mexican people feel to the dead is something that resonates with me. Mexican culture has an interesting relationship with the dead. The living and the dead are not really seen as being in two different worlds. Those that have gone before us are ever present in our day-to-day lives.

My maternal grandfather passed away when I was 3 years old. Ever since his death, I’ve lived my life feeling as if he were truly around whenever I needed him. I’ve talked to him and prayed for him without ever really feeling like he was up in the clouds or physically away but rather that he is here next to me. A special time for my grandpa and I was breakfast time when we would get donuts and dunk them in his coffee. I had a lot of cousins so I always valued this one-on-one time with him. I still think of him and talk to him when I pass a Dunkin’ Donuts.

La Lupe is in her 80s so she has lost a lot of her family members. She speaks of them all the time and I love sitting with her for hours listening to these stories. One of her brothers who passed away a long time ago was a great artist who carved an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe that is displayed in her dining room. Most dinners she draws everyone’s attention to it as she tells stories about him. I especially love the story she tells about how he would always take a little piece of his bread at dinnertime and roll it into a little ball and flick it across the table at her when no one was looking. She always reminds me that when she passes away, I’m going to inherit this carving and with it the responsibility of remembering her brother, Kelo.

While La Lupe taught me a lot about honoring the dead, I learned from my mom, also. When I was younger I had a paralyzing fear of the dark. I always felt like some other presence was lurking around waiting for me. She always said that when she is in the dark and feels scared or like some other presence might be there, she would just pray for the souls of the dead. I tried it and it did make me feel less scared, and hopefully any wandering souls benefited from a little girl’s prayers.

The dead are never less important just because they are no longer present with us. Even their bodies are extremely important. In Mexican culture, when a person passes away, it is customary to never leave the body alone before the burial. Family members take shifts to sit with the casket and keep vigil over it every day until the person is buried.

While this may on the surface seem morbid and strange, Mexican culture holds a deep loyalty and responsibility to the dead. In the tradition, there are three deaths. The first is when the heart stops. The second is when the person is buried. And the third is when the person is forgotten completely by everyone still alive. We want to never allow this third death. It is not so much being stuck in the past but rather honoring those that have taught us and gone before us. They are part of us and we have a responsibility to keep their memory by living our lives in a way that honors them and that honors the lessons they taught us.

One day, we will meet God. Our bodies will turn to dust, and I’ll hope that my family is still talking to me and praying for me then.

Eternal rest, grant unto us, O Lord. And let Your perpetual light shine upon us.