The days grow shorter; the clouds shift and swirl in and out of light; rains bring colder weather; owls hoot; leaves fall. Nature and our souls respond to an eerie sense of certain change. It is completely understandable that we therefore welcome an opportunity to design and observe rituals that help us weather this transition and cope with a strange sense of veiled dread from loss and death at this time of year.
Which brings me to my interest this evening in the contrast between Halloween and Dia de los Muertes, and in particular how a sense of death is recognized differently in these related seasonal commemorations.
Halloween will be celebrated in the U.S. this coming Sunday, October 31, and the following week, November 1st and 2nd, is Dia de los Muertos that is primarily observed in Mexico but may include variations in other parts of Central and Latin America. Both holidays come out of the restless and haunting fall season and its association with death.
Halloween, or All-Saints day, in the popular American culture nearly ignores a serious reflection on death as a hallowed or sanctified part of life. Instead we emphasize the playful eeriness of ghosts and goblins and costumes meant primarily to amuse and entertain rather than evoke any particular sentiment related to death. Or we go to the other extreme, it seems, of emphasizing the grotesque and macabre of death as blood and gore.
Like many other cultures who devoutly honor their dead, In spirited contrast to Halloween and All-Saints Day, the Dia de los Muertos* focuses primarily on the death of loved ones and commemorating and memorializing them, not as a time of mourning, but as a time of celebration. Gravesites are visited and covered with marigold flowers whose bright yellow color and strong scent are meant to invite the souls of departed ones for a reunion with the living. The matter of death is thus accepted, befriended, even welcomed, smiled at, mocked, danced with. Skulls and cadavers are the primary symbols at the events as they are made to smile, dance, and made into candy. It is a time of happiness and “ofrendas,” of gift-giving. There is something utterly fascinating and even attractive to me about turning the fear and sadness of death on its head. Easter proposes that, but I think the Dia de los Muertos better accomplishes overcoming the dread and sadness of death in such a personal and celebratory way.
The contrast between the two holidays leads me to wonder if the U.S. culture is actually afraid of a reckoning with death as is accomplished in the Dia de los Muertos. Halloween seems like a good example of our avoidance. We enjoy family and communal fun with an emphasis on costuming and play, but we seldom if ever explore our sublimated awareness of death that is implied in all those ghosts and graveyard lawn decorations. And then, bizarrely, the culture seems to make the radical shift to the entertainment distraction of the macabre and blood and gore. There is no opportunity to also use the “all hallowed time” for some form of serious consideration of death as well.
What if the holiday also included a time to talk with children about death, the death they see in nature at this time of year, and maybe their fears of death, for example? What if it were a time for elders to talk about their process of understanding and preparing for their own death and their intended legacy to their loved ones? What if we took a page from the Dia de los Muertos and made Halloween (rather than the customary Memorial Day) an opportunity for family visits to gravesites to honor and remember those who have passed. And this year we might have benefitted from talking about the impact the number of deaths and threat of death from Covid has meant to each and every one of us. Is a common expectation of a conversation about death too threatening? And could we be even more daring to talk about the meaning of deaths from wars, climate threats, gun violence? The alternative is to continue to ignore the reality of death by making it a fantasy or too gross to consider.
I’m not, of course, advocating that we need to simply accept and celebrate death as in the Dia de los Muertos. What I do take from the Dia de los Muertos' celebration is a deep honoring and celebration of life itself. Death is part of life. If we accept that with grace, humility and gratitude we will want to celebrate all those with whom we have shared our lives in the spirit of welcoming them to be present again to us.
Honoring death and overcoming our fear of it honors the sacredness and sanctity of life as well. Something of that deep honoring seems lost in the American soul. The sobering experience of deaths associated with the Covid pandemic and the threats of climate related stress and suffering may lead us to find new traditions and rituals - like the Dia de los Muetros - to explore a new level of our humanity and grace about death as we face into these uncertain times.
We have an opportunity to “hallow “ this coming week by acknowledging and accepting the reality of death and to learn to befriend death in the spirit of those who celebrate the Dia de los Muertos.
*For more information about the Dia de los Muertos see https://dayofthedead.holiday/
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