Saturday evening I went to a Dia de los Muertos celebration to see what it was about. The Day of the Dead is an important Mexican holiday held the first two days of November to honor the dead. This one featured poets and musicians gathering not only to remember their dead family and friends but to perform and to raise money from a silent auction and raffle to hold slam poetry workshops in the city schools. I watched some very cool spoken-word poets do their stuff and heard an “earth rhythms” healing drum circle. And, I saw the most wonderful ofrenda, the traditional altar of offerings for the dead.
BJC Hospice sponsored the altar and a local poet of Mexican heritage created it with a few volunteers from the hospice program. I picked up one of her flyers thoroughly explaining Day of the Dead and was impressed by this beautiful, symbolic and cheerful tradition. It is based on the Aztec belief of three deaths: when the heart stops, when the body is buried, and when no one is left to remember. The festival is “a reminder of our inevitable mortality” and of the “lasting power” to remain alive as memories in the hearts and minds of the living.
As a lifewriting proponent, I was struck by the truth of that statement, that we have the power to remain alive through memories others hold of us. That is why I encourage everyone to write their lives or that of their elders, because writing lasts longer than one person’s memories. Especially important when you live in a culture that no longer even thinks to tell our stories. How can we be fully fleshed if others see only our present tenses. How will we remain alive if we don’t tell our stories?
I like a few other traditions and beliefs of the Day of the Dead. Butterflies, particularly Monarchs which pass through Mexico around the time of the festival, are believed to carry the spirits of the dead to the otherworld and to guide them back to the living to be annually honored. Candy skulls and smiling skeletons, often dancing or playing instruments, represent “an afterlife that is joyful and active.” Lighting of a candle is an intentional way to “ignite the memories of our loved ones.” There is incense, lots of chrysanthemums and marigolds (the flower of the dead), water and soft Mexican bread offerings, and photos of the dead. The altar is a beautiful display of love and respect. And the grinning skeletons remind us that our beloveds are happy somewhere out there.