day of the dead
The calendar celebrates three days, October 31, All Hallows’ Eve, November 1, All Saint’s Day, Todos Santos and then November 2 , All Souls day Dia de los Innocents.
One of Mexico’s finest witters, Octavio Paz remarked in The Labyrinth of Solitude, the Day of the Dead affirms “the nothingness and insignificance of human existence”…Mexicans joke about death as they “caress it, sleep with it, and celebrate it” while they “look at it, face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony.”
Whereas Halloween is a dark night of terror and mischief, Day of the Dead festivities unfold over three days in an explosion of color and life-affirming joy. Sure, the theme is death, but the point is to demonstrate love and respect for the dead and especially deceased family members and friends. Early Ancient Indians believed the dead traveled back and forth between worlds and even remain in this life like a spirit guide. The Mexico culture has a comfortable relationship with the dead and it enables them to not take life too seriously, they are not strained or surprised by loss. Mexicans find delight in laughing at death. This is a festive time to encourage visits by the souls, and for the souls to hear the prayers and comments of the living directed towards them. Celebrations can take on a humorous tone, as celebrants recount funny events and anecdotes about the departed, and also words of reconciliation and confessions. The he/she spirit of death is present throughout the year and never far from their day to day life. The ongoing awareness cannot help but diminish the fear of death.
Grave sites and/or one corner of the families private home are annually cleaned and spruced up by the surviving family members. The cemetery is a buzz the day before, then gradually sites are loaded with offerings made to the spirits who will arrive. It may include a favorite beverage or simply flavored water to quench the thirst of the departed after the long journey. Liquor, food, family photos, memorabilia, candy, toys for children and a candle for each dead relative are also added. Pungent orange marigolds flowers are thought to attract souls of the dead to the grave. The smoke from copal incense made from tree resin,gives the site a surreal atmosphere, as family members engage in praise and prayers which purifies the area around the altar. In some locations, celebrants wear shells on their clothing, so when they dance, the noise will wake up the dead; some will also dress up in favorite clothing of the deceased. Each altar includes the four elements of nature: wind, water, fire and earth. The graveside celebrations are complete with priests who say mass and administer blessings, favorite music like mariachi,and fireworks, make it a real spectral.
Day of the Dead originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people, who considered gloomy mourning for the dead to be disrespectful. For these Pre-Hispanic cultures, death was a natural phase in life’s long continuum symbolized in the sculls and skeletons commonly found on much of the pre-columbian artifacts and ritual sites of Meso America. The dead were still members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit—and during Día de los Muertos, they temporarily returned to Earth, around the time of the corn harvest a symbolic time of death and re-birth. For those who have crossed over to the other side of Life is thought to be happy, free from the constant demands of this earthly realm, and free from the pain and suffering. The celebration is bittersweet and full of complex imagery based on how communities remember their ancestors.
Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on the snow.
I am the sunlight on the ripened grain.
I am the gentle Autumn’s rain.
When you awaken in the morning hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush,
of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry:
I am not there, I did not die.
Cultures around the world have celebrate in a variety of ways birth, death and rebirth has a natural cycle, even in the christian baptism we see death of sin and rebirth in spirit. In Egypt the mummifies where thought to be present as they stood in the hall year round and dragged to the dinner table at special events. Hindus have annual commemorative where death rituals are important not only for the future of the dead but also for the continued welfare of the living. Like Christianity celebrating Easter commemorating Jesus, the Hindus celebrate his death called Shraddha. China designates April 4, celebrating and worshiping their ancestors with respect by an annuals tomb sweeping and repair, kite flying, (people cut the string to free the kite and bring good luck and eliminate diseases.) and putting willow branches on gates to ward off wandering evil spirits.
I would encourage you to make an altar of your own this year. Perhaps awkward at first, but with time and annual practice, the depth of understanding and insight into this natural transition of death becomes life giving. You will find you have a context to talk about your own death and that of others as well as a curious unfolding. Altar building is available to everyone, to shape and form a ritual for making sense and peace within your own heart, in our own way.