Celebrating Dia de los Muertos: a healthy way to honor those who have passed away
Are there any among us who have not lost a loved one? Is there anyone who wished they had said a few more words, asked a few more questions, about their deceased loved ones? Aren’t there many children who could benefit from understanding death, honor, and learning more about their ancestors?
At the end of the month I would love to be in Mexico for the annual Day of the Dead festival, Dia de los Muertos. Often confused with Halloween, it is a very different celebration. Instead of fear, it promotes acceptance and understanding of death and grief. Instead of solemn silence, it is a loud, joyful, even humorous time.
It falls close to Halloween, is a multi-day celebration, and includes lots of images of skeletons, so it’s easy to understand the confusion.
But the Day of the Dead is truly a civilized way to mourn and honor those in life who have passed away. If you watched the animated film coco, you’ve seen the story: the tradition and beliefs surrounding vacations in Mexico. You may have seen how families find solace in celebrating the dead, helping them “cross the bridge” for a day to visit the living and return to where they came from in peace. I find that quite healthy, psychologically. Elaborate and charming altars – “ofrendas” – are built in Mexican homes with portraits of loved ones, surrounded by flowers, candles, favorite food and drink. Traditions vary in different cities and towns in Mexico, but the idea is the same and dates back to the times of the Aztecs.
In North America, coping with grief takes many forms, often private, honored as stoic and courageous. In addition, death is often treated with fear, a horror, to be avoided. (Maybe not so healthy, psychologically, given the inevitability of death?) Talking about death is to be avoided. Death should simply be abhorred and avoided at all costs, treated as if it “would not happen here”. In much of the United States, it is common to visit the grave or memorial of a loved one and even speak out loud to them, or even shed tears. It also serves a purpose, of course, and is heartwarming to many.
But in Mexico, the Day of the Dead allows for a permissive and public display of emotional loss with the full support of the community. People together buy decorations and food to prepare to honor the dead. They visit cemeteries together, often in a happy parade. Stories are told, laughter is loud and tears openly flow together. It removes the stigma of talking about people you know who are deceased. It shows children that death is a part of life and that you can keep the spirit of the happy of the dead in your heart. It’s an annual therapy.
Dia de los Muertos, a mix of Mesoamerican and Catholic traditions, inspires much of the artwork available in Mexico today. Most stores sell art with the “Catrinas”, the rather charming, skeletal women, lavishly dressed in traditional Western clothing. This too is a cultural mockery. It originally represented the style of an upper-class woman who would embrace the conquering European culture, rather than the indigenous culture of Mexico. It’s meant to be funny, as are some of the gifts given to friends, including humorous obituaries of the living.
Day of the Dead laughs in the face of fear, doesn’t care, conjures up images of loved ones who have passed away, and invites them to the table for a reunion.
There is of course a reason why this celebration falls at the end of the harvest season, when the crops are dead to support the living, an ancient belief. You can see the celebration quite publicly on the streets of Mexico, in almost every village, with an annual parade and street festival, with parties and handmade “Catrina” dolls as a tribute. Children often go door to door asking for candy, meant to feed dead souls as they make their way to the other side. However, there is no “trick” or mischief if a treat is not given. It’s a smoother, gentler way for children to understand death.
In the United States, Halloween is certainly not about mourning the death, but about costumes and fear and, yes, fun for the kids. There is certainly nothing wrong with it. I love Halloween and made some fun costumes for my kids and grandchildren. But it should not be confused with the Day of the Dead. They are both fun.
This tradition is celebrated wherever Mexicans migrated, including to the United States, especially in Mexican-American communities in the southwestern states. You can see signs of this in several areas of Snohomish County, especially in Latino markets.
As I have enjoyed all the rich traditions of Mexico, I find great joy and solace in this wonderful Mexican national holiday, almost like a day of therapy. Maybe I can try to emulate him here at home with this favorite photo of my dear parents together and some chats and laughs with them. Now to find some good tamales!
– By Mauri Moore Shuler
Mauri Moore Shuler is bicultural, having spent her childhood in South America and much of her adulthood in Mexico and Central America. She is a retired journalist and former member of Edmonds City Council and a Trustee of Edmonds Community College.
(Photos by Karen Cabrera, who lives in Spokane and Puerto Vallarta)