Dia de los Muertos: Honoring the Dead by Living

Dia de los Muertos: Honoring the Dead by Living

Every year, immediately after Halloween a unique cultural event occurs. It’s an event that celebrates our mortality by honoring the lives of those who are no longer physically with us. This day is called Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

This holiday originates in Mexico, but is now becoming more and more popular in the United States as well. From city parades, to children’s movies, how we approach death and dying in our culture seems to be shifting.

Below is a sneak peak of a clip from the Death Makes Life Possible movie, and also an excerpt from my upcoming book of the same name (to be published in Spring 2015), in which I talk about the history of this cultural event, what it means to those who participate in it, and the meaning I found in my own participation. I hope you enjoy this insight, and perhaps you will even be inspired to join in the celebration this year!

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Excerpt from Death Makes Life Possible, the book:

One of my favorite celebrations occurs every year on November 1 In the weeks before this date, the community where I live embraces the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos. While originating in Mexico, this celebration of death draws people from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. It has origins in the indigenous communities of the pre-Columbian past.

On the holiday, friends and family gather to remember their departed loved ones. Those who participate in the tradition believe that the veil between the living and the dead becomes thin, and the dead become more active during this time when fall is upon us and the harvest season is complete. In Petaluma, California, as in other cities in America, Mexico, and throughout Latin America, people build dynamic altars to honor their departed loved ones. Offerings, including drinks or food, marigolds, and candles, are placed on shrines. These are items that the departed spirits will enjoy. Altars also typically include pictures to help people remember those who have passed. As one celebrant explained to me, creating the altar “gives us an energetic connection to our loved ones.”

Dia de los Muertos rituals include dynamic parades and boisterous celebration. There is a palpable sense of joy and conviviality. People are dancing, playing music, singing, and talking to their departed ancestors. It is a way to both honor the dead and appease them, so that they don’t cause trouble for those who remain in the realm of the living.

Several months after my mother’s passing, I found myself in downtown Petaluma on November 11 I was drawn to the colorful costumes and macabre images of skeletons and caskets. Women were dressed as the Lady in White or the popular icon Catrina, a female skeleton dressed only in a fancy hat. Children stood inside giant puppets of el diablo, a reminder of the dark forces that accompany death. A mariachi band played near the bridge crossing on the Petaluma River. A little farther, a band of marching skeletons assumed formation.

My friend, Gloria MacAllister (her last name from her Scottish husband), greeted me with enthusiasm. She is a cultural catalyst who bridges her Mexican heritage with her California life. With MacAllister, I was caught up in the excitement, mar1ching with the flow of spirit and inspiration. I carried a candle to honor my mother. Gloria was dressed as a spirit. To my left was the woman in white, Catrina. She was a haunting image that pervaded this traditional event. The puppets changed hands, and I helped Gloria carry one of the large, heavy papier-maché constructions. The weight was noticeable; honoring the dead is not a light and easy process. And the load was shared—for all are responsible for the ancestors. I felt a heaviness in my heart at my mother’s recent passing. This soon gave way as the parade continued and I found myself going with the flow. Death does make life possible.