In essence, the Days of the Dead celebrations are one avenue for the living to deal with the powerful forces of life and death, as well as provide opportunities to continue to commune with their beloved dead. By affirming both life and continued communion with those who have died, Días de los Muertos declares that death is not the final passage of life.
Growing up in a family of European descent in a predominantly white neighborhood in Michigan, I knew nothing of Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, but I knew of Halloween. Each year we dressed up in costumes and walked from house to house getting free candy. What’s not to like? Día de los Muertos falls at the same time as Halloween, but has a quite different focus.
Halloween finds it origins in Samhain, a Celtic festival marking the change of seasons, in which participants wore costumes to ward off evil spirits. Home fires were extinguished and then relit from the great sacred bonfires around which participants danced in their costumes. Christianity spread into Ireland, and in the eight century, Pope Gregory III established All Saints Day November 1. The eve of All Saints (Hallows Eve) and Samhain blended into something that would eventually evolve into our modern Halloween.[i]
Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, has a similar origin but a significantly more relational focus with regards to dearly departed loved ones. While Halloween does not invite us to remember and give thanks for the dead (All Saints does), Día de los Muertos has this as a primary relational focus. It may be more accurately said Días de los Muertos, plural, as the festival encompasses three days: October 31 (All Saints Eve: remembering departed children), November 1 (All Saints: remembering those who left us too soon), and then the culmination November 2 (All Souls: all dearly departed).[ii]
Mexican Día de los Muertos emerged in Mesoamerica following Cortés 16th century conquest. Like Halloween and Samhain, Día de los Muertos finds its origins in pre-Christian faith. Let us pause to recall how many of our treasured “Christian” practices evolved as Christianity spread: Christmas trees of Druid origin, Advent wreaths, Yule logs, Easter eggs, et al.
Día de los Muertos does not bid us seek candy dressed up as superheroes or monsters, but instead, consists of family home altars often called ofrendas, including candles, flowers, papel picado (cut paper banners), calaveras (skeletons), photos of dearly departed loved ones, food and drink that they loved, and more. Yes, there is candy for the children, in the form of candied skulls. The celebration includes trips to the cemetery, where graves are decorated with flowers and candles, and vigils are held. Edward Aponte (¡Santo! 2012) quotes Lara Medina,
Western cultures enclose death engaged cemeteries void of color and Mary making. Dias de los mortals does not replicate patterns of exclusion. The right, with its color, humor and friendly spirit, invites of people to approach death and the “other” without fear. The silence of death and the pain exclusion are challenged in the festivity of this public morning ritual.[iii]
The elaborate family home altars are a focus of Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art,[iv] where tours are offered of their Día de los Muertos exhibit, entitled Solo un poco aqui, after the poem by Netzahualcoyotl about the mortality of humans, “only here for a short while.”[v] My wife Susan and I recently took the virtual tour.
I was touched that the number of those who have died of COVID-19 was memorialized at the very beginning of the exhibit. As of this writing, that number is estimated to be 1,197,796. Of particular interest was the Juana artwork. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, was a 17th century nun, mathematician and poet, who sought an education when it was illegal for women. She is considered the first feminist of the Americas. A piece by Carmen Garza, named Hombres necios(Foolish men), the opening words of one of her poems captured both la lucha, the struggle, and the Día focus.
The struggle of immigration was a theme of much of the artwork, with the free migration of butterflies symbolically representing both the sacred journey of the spirit and the existential struggle for migratory freedom. This ties faith, spirituality and lo cotidiano, the very real, everyday present together. Queer artists imagined the gender-free relationships of the afterlife. The artwork at the NMMC is copyrighted and cannot be shown here, but the online tour is free to all. In these pieces we witness the mélange of Mesoamerican and European Catholic art and spirituality.
This year Susan and I made our own home altar. It included photo of our parents. Flowers, foods and like were present, along with some of their items. There sits a home communion kit my dad used as a pastor, and herb scissors to symbolize his love of gardening and cooking. My mom’s Bible, a lifetime of highlighting and underlining on every page. On All Saints I will spend time praying and remembering at their grave, sneaking in some flowers and eating foods they loved. I will also remember the children who have died at the border, and the 545 children who have not died, but have been separated from their parents by a soulless political structure, never to be reunited, orphans created with my tax dollars. I will remember black lives ruined or snuffed out by a biased prison system and militaristic law enforcement not held accountable. Do I sound angry? Well yes, as a matter of fact I am.
Some in my childhood community feared Halloween, seeing it as a dabbling in the occult. Others eschew the Halloween today, in favor of church “fall festivals.” I suspect my parents, may they rest in peace, might have found Día de los Muertos worrisome had they run into it. I fear that such concerns may actually be fear of the otherness of diverse religious encounters. Can we instead, like Jesus, recognize the faith of those indigenous faiths outside our religious tradition as did Jesus? (The woman at the well, the Syrophoencian woman, the Roman centurion, etc.)
What does Día de los Muertos mean today? Is it a cultural anachronism? With Dr. Carmen Nanko-Fernández I concur: No! Like visitations, funerals and even All Saints Day candles, Día de los Muertos is a way of helping people make sense of death. It also bridges the cultural gap in our increasingly pluralistic U.S. context:
Are these practices helping people make sense of death? Are they traditioning cultural identities? Are they acts of resistance against forces that strive to erase memory? Are they familiar because they represent the hybridity that is increasingly a part of the lived reality of the United States? I suspect it is all of the above and more.[vi]
As a pastor and now bishop in Houston, a city where half the population are Latin@, I have grown to appreciate such faith practices as a way to break out of our culturally-bound denominational blinders. I have grown to appreciate the conclusions in The Hope of Eternal Life, the 11th round of the Catholic-Lutheran dialogs, which encourage us to see a more semipermeable barrier between life and death.[vii] I am reminded that each Sunday we pray with the communion of saints, in the Eucharistic Proper Preface, “and so with saints and angels and all the company of heaven…”
[i] History.com Editors. 2019. “Halloween 2018.” HISTORY. March 13, 2019. https://www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween.
[ii] Edwin David Aponte, ¡Santo! Varieties of Latino/a Spirituality (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books. Kindle Edition, 2012), loc. 1758-1789.
[iii] Ibid. Aponte is quoting Lara Medina from an article entitled “Days of the Dead (Días de los Muertos),” in Religion in American Cultures: An Encyclopedia of Traditions, Diversity and Popular Expressions, edited by Gary Laderman and Louise Leon. Santa Barbara : ABC NCL Ayo, 2003, 380.
[v] “5 trascendentales poemas de Nezahualcóyotl.” Masdemx.com. Accessed October 31, 2020. https://masdemx.com/2016/08/5-mejores-poemas-de-nezahualcoyotl/. To wit:
Yo Netzahualcoyotl lo pregunto
¿Acaso de veras se vive con raíz en la tierra?
No para siempre en la tierra:
sólo un poco aquí.
Aunque sea de jade se quiebra,
aunque sea de oro se rompe,
aunque sea plumaje de quetzal se desgarra.
No para siempre en la tierra:
sólo un poco aqui.
[vii] “Catholic-Lutheran dialog” Wikipedia. Accessed October 31, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic–Lutheran_dialogue