Los Muertos: On Celebrating the Dead

A woman stands near the grave of a relative in Mexico City to celebrate the “Day of the Dead.” (CNS photo)
A woman stands near the grave of a relative in Mexico City to celebrate the “Day of the Dead.” (CNS photo)
In the last two years I lost both of my grandmothers. It is a strange and disconcerting reality being grandmotherless in this world. I feel their absence sharp and deep. As I sit with my grocery list planning meals for a family of six on a budget, I think of my Grammy Mary Louise who had a particular gift of making something out of nothing. When I am running all over the house like a madwoman trying to get ready for company, I think of my Grandma Pat and her effortless, artful hospitality. I think of how for so many years they were a simple phone call away and now — now that I am older, now that I am beginning to understand what it means to be the matriarch of my own little clan, now that I have swallowed my pride and realized that I have so much to learn about, well, everything — they are gone.

Throughout Latin America, in many parts of Europe, and in small pockets across the U.S., this week brings Dia de Los Muertos — the Day of the Dead. People will build altars in their homes, churches, cemeteries, and public squares to honor the dead and to welcome them to draw near. Offerings of food, flowers, and drinks adorn altars, which also feature religious symbols and pictures of the deceased. On this day — the eve of the ancient Christian Feasts of All Saints and All Souls — it is said that the veil between this world and the next is made thin. That we are granted closeness with loved ones who have died as a foretaste of heaven. That we are called to reflect on our own mortality. That we remember that the communion of the saints means that death cannot ultimately separate us. And that death is not to be feared because Christ — through his life, death, and resurrection — has conquered it.

This year I need Dia de Los Muertos. I need a chance to honor my grandmothers and to invite them to come close. I need to be reminded of the ways they have shaped me — the ways they continue to shape me. I need to be reminded that the distance between us is finite and that our God is infinite. I need to celebrate them. Rejoice in them. Because I am overwhelmed with gratitude to belong to them.

This year our old wooden dining table will serve as an altar. I will iron Grandma Pat’s lace tablecloth and dress the table in marigolds. Fresh apples — like the ones my Grammy used to bring us from her job at the packing plant — will fill the wooden bowl at the center of the table. Pictures and small treasures will rest on the ivory lace. We will celebrate them as part of the company of saints watching over us in heaven, which include my husband’s mother, grandparents, and our sweet angelitos lost to miscarriage. We will give thanks for all of them. We will see them in each other and in ourselves. We will celebrate their closeness to God and savor their closeness to us this Dia de Los Muertos, and always. Amen.