Does the thought of death make you cringe?
This blog thus far, has been about the benefits and how to’s of intentionally creating and sustaining positive daily habits. Today I will go a little off topic and share with you the benefits of a tradition that I am making an annual habit, celebrating The Day of The Dead.
Death Making It’s Presence Real
Experiencing giving birth to my son and witnessing, in the recent years, loved ones navigating the loss of their loved ones, gave me a sobering reality check about the fragility of my human existence. Beyond the beautiful sugar skulls and skeleton art work made famous by the Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada, I have invited the deeper meaning of this celebration to weave itself into my life.
An Anchor in the Fast Paced Transience
In different places all over the planet, seemingly very different cultures have found ways to express reverence, sorrow and acceptance through their traditions that celebrate the one central theme of death. Here is a wikipedia link that shares the many ways cultures (all except our modern American one) pay homage to death and ancestors. In the vast expanse of human history, traditions were created by us, for us, to more easily surf the major universal transitions such as the coming of age, partnering, childbirths, beginnings, initiations, endings and death.
Rites of Passage
We as humans need rites of passage to mark for ourselves and those that know us, that we have passed through a distinct and important point of no return in our life, during one of these major transitions.
In our go go go culture, making space to pause and pay homage to our mortality has not been popular. I have had conversations with friends about how they feel like time has stopped for them and as though the boat of life has moved on, with everyone else in it but them, because a loved one has died and they can’t seem to “move on or shake it off”.
As if there is some life schedule they should be on emotionally, particularly the one our work life grants us.
Emotional Deer In The Headlights
After having had coordinated her mother’s funeral, a 20 something co worker of mine came to work 2 days later, in daze…understandably, because tragedy or not, she needed to pay the bills. It felt wrong to expect someone to be productive, efficient and give “great customer service” when going through such a life altering change. There was an elephant in the room when one of us at work had to help her because she forgot processes she had done a million times before or was caught staring into nothing blankly when called.
It’s ironic the way our work pace has such a gargantuan influence on how we spend our time yet glazes over such fundamentally metamorphosing events, leaving us disoriented and out of place for years.
The Old Ways
I remember witnessing the dying of my young cousins mother. She was in her teens with the responsibility of caring for her two pre-teen siblings now heavily laid on her shoulders. Unexpectedly during a “simple” surgery where my aunt would be out the same day, she had passed. Neighbors and family members came encircling my cousins and uncle. We filled up their home, people huddled, held and sobbed together. Everything had to stop, jobs and school alike. It was understood.
Neighbors brought food for 14 days. There were prayers recited in front of the house from neighbors, friends, and family alike for 3 continuous days after my aunt’s funeral, every evening at twilight.
Making Space to Hold Each Other
That to me seems more right sized, organic and appropriate. It affirms and validates the severity of what has happened. This is one of the many ways traditions like these teach and remind us how to hold one another, literally and emotionally.
Vastly different from the sending of flowers and cards coupled with a pat on the back in passing at lunch and at work breaks.
Convenience’s of Modern Life Can’t Compensate for It’s Lack of Humanity
These ancient traditions meet very basic human needs that the gloss and shine of modern life cannot satisfy. We humans have figured out over the millennia that having these communal pauses makes the changes easier to ride. There is an anchoring to something bigger then ourselves when societies make time for these rites of passage.
Feeding The Spirit
My parents are Mexican. I was raised mostly in the states. We never celebrated the Day of The Dead but my when I’d visit extended family in the summers my aunts and cousins would share stories of how they did.
Before I share about what they told me here is a short, lush and intimate video made by Google about The Day of The Dead
The Traditional Way
The way I know this tradition to be practiced full out is that an altar is made at home days before November 1st. On the night of November 1st the whole town comes down to the cemetery bringing tons of food, marigold flowers, candles and accompanied by mariachi bands. People pray, sing their deceased loved one’s favorite songs, eat and share their stories all night. It’s a cathartic experience where in community, the sweetness of that loved one’s existence is acknowledged along with the pain of losing them physically.
At the end of this major and intimate societal pause, one is a little more whole-hearted, the fear of death is soothed and a deeper value for life is strengthened.
How would our society be like if the majority of us celebrated death?
I’ve made efforts over the recent years to practice this in my own capacity. It has evolved from simply sending a short prayer in between having had taken a shower and eating breakfast to now making an altar, praying more elaborately, writing the names of my loved ones on paper and cooking a meal.
This year I took a little bit more time in remembering the tastes of those who have passed. My grandfather Ricardo like his tequila. I don’t drink, neither do I welcome it in my home but to grant some peace to my grandpa I won’t think twice. I offered sweet Mexican bread, traditional peanut candy that I remember my aunts and uncles eating. I made and offered coffee the way I remember it in the pueblo, with boiled sugar and cinnamon. I made re fried beans with rice. No time for salsa so I roasted 2 chilies over the flame.
I did a few repetitions of Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s and 108 repetitions of the Sanskrit world peace prayer lokah samastah sukinu bhavantu. With each repetition imagining their faces, remembering the sounds of their voices, feeling gratitude for who they were and how they touched me and sending them peace.
It’s not my practice to recite Catholic prayers but on this occasion it felt appropriate considering all my deceased loved ones thus far were Catholic and so I feel more connected to them personally through those prayers.
There is an inner quiet and satisfaction unlike any other when I finish this practice. During the prayers I’ve had moments of remembering what it felt like to be in their presences. Reading books about death or attending a Halloween party can’t do that.
Altars as Celebration and Remembrance
The altars can be as detailed and decorated as this one from The Museum of South Texas History
Or as simple as the 15 min altar I made this year.
I intend to lean into embracing death with the help of this tradition.
Although no one very close to me has passed yet, I know I will covet this annual habit all the more when that day comes.
Practicing this tradition reminds me of my true place in the world. It’s easy to go about our business like the world revolves around us in our little corner of the earth. This tradition reminds me of just how small a space I actually take up in the scheme of things. It reminds me of how fragile we all are and how important is the good we create.
Here is a link to a great article on stories of people’s experience of this special celebration.
Find a Local Cafe Near You!
An awesome site to check out for those wanting to lean into celebrating and exploring death more and not just for one day out of the year is the Death Cafe. It is a movement of people that meetup to hold spaces in cafes all around the world for discussion about anything and everything concerning death. Their aim is “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives” .
Do you make space in your life to acknowledge death? Does the mere thought of this immobilize you with fear? I’d love to know
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