The altar is complete. Dia de los Muertos — Day of the Dead– 2018 has passed. The difuntos, spirits of the ancestors, have returned to their resting places content that we have welcomed them back to earth for the day to celebrate their lives. Some of us talk to our parents, ask their advice, admonish them for shortcomings, appreciate the gift of life.
Mexicans know how to honor their generations with this day that is considered more important than any in family and community life.
El Dia de los Muertos is the homecoming of the spirits of the dead all over Mexico, a reunion of the dead and the living. The old ones say that when the spirits come back to the world of the living, their path must be made clear, the roadway must not be slippery with the wet flood of human tears.
-Salvatore Scalora, Flowers and Sugar Skulls for the Spirits of the Dead, Home Altars of Mexico, 1997
I am not attempting to appropriate a culture that I haven’t been born into. I participate and create Dia de los Muertos to learn more about how to accept the transition from life to death and the continuum and cycles of life. It is a devotional practice like meditation and prayer. Finding comfort is essential for the human spirit.
Last night, a few friends gathered here at home in Durham, North Carolina, to pay tribute to those who have gone before us. Mostly parents and grandparents. They brought photographs to place on the altar.
Photographs, a recent phenomenon, help us remember. In Teotitlan del Valle, photos were not placed on altars until the 1960’s. It is said that after two generations, memory of a particular person is lost. Storytelling, recalling favorite foods, jokes, clothes, activities was and is essential to remembering especially in the absence of visual clues.
We sat around in a circle sharing our memories, comparing how we prepare for death and dying here in the USA with Mexico. Of course, this depends on our personal upbringings and spiritual beliefs, and whether there is any ritual associated with remembering those who died.
I could imagine, as we sipped wine, beer and mezcal, ate tamales and enchiladas, and told stories of mothers and fathers and grandparents and siblings, that we could have sat around a family gravesite in Teotitlan del Valle, laughing, bringing up tears and feeling connected — to each other and to those who passed on.
We told stories about the love of music, literature, eating and drinking, a good joke, growing up on humble southern farms, sprawling suburbs, gritty city centers, of immigrant and refugee families, of missing a sibling to reminisce and remember details. Someone said that one never recovers from the loss of a mother, another that her father was the most important support in her life. We were real, talking about function, dysfunction and love.
Next year, 2019, I will be in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, with Professor Robin Greene. We will be leading the Day of the Dead Women’s Writing Retreat. A year away and we are half-filled — five spaces open. Will you join us?
The Aztecs, I read, believed that death fed life, that human sacrifice was necessary to feed the earth to make sure there is enough rain, fertile seeds and soil, an abundance of food. Death was not feared but celebrated, honored, even welcomed.
Zapotecs practiced ancestor worship and buried their dead in the courtyard of family homes so they would be close and could consult with them regularly. Bones are swept aside every ten years to make room for the next ancestor in the same resting space. This is still common in many villages.
I honor my parents and grandparents by remembering them. Sometimes, I feel they are with me, especially when I am saying or doing something that is exactly as they would have said or done it (or so it feels). I think about my own mortality and try not to be afraid, to accept the natural order of life that is synonymous with death. Will I live on? Yes, in the memories of my family and those I have touched. Is there comfort in that? Perhaps.
As we search for meaning, for connection, for intimacy, Day of the Dead gives us pause to examine our own lives and those who came before, those who gave us life, and to ride the tailwinds and not fight the headwinds.
Do you observe Day of the Dead? Where? How?