Happy Dia de los Muertos, the end of the three-day festival from Mexico that celebrates the souls of ancestors, friends, and family members who have died, and supports their journey in the afterlife. The Mexican event, which began 3000 years ago, was shifted to sync with a three-day Christian festival that also honors the departed, Allhallowtide. The old Christian festival “to remember the dead, including martyrs, saints, and all faithful departed Christians”* begins with All Hallows Eve (Halloween), then continues with All Saints’ Day (All Hallows’) and All Souls’ Day.
For Dia de los Muertos, the songs and the tequila come out, so that the dead souls feel celebrated, rather than mourned. The dead are welcomed as part of the community, and death is considered a natural part of life.
Halloween without the hallow
Not so with that commercial blockbuster, Halloween, the only popularly celebrated part of Allhallowtide. Gone is the festival’s original intent of honoring the dead and acknowledging the mystery of death. The costumes and masks we wear today were originally donned, not to spook people or entitle one to candy, but to help people disguise their identities from the spirits that might be out and about on the night “when the veil between the material world and the afterlife thinned.”*
The night when the veil between the material world and the afterlife thinned. Wow. That sounds like the zone where death might live. (Mood music, please.)
Why do we turn our backs on the specter of death as if it’s some horrible, spooky thing?
In his classic book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker asserts that a lot of what makes people obsessed with their work or drives their creations is their desire to outrun death and achieve some sense of immortality through what they achieve.
When we deny death, we can’t be fully present to life.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote about death, not as something to be avoided, but something to be welcomed as part of the two halves of life (life and death).
“I am not saying that we should love death, but rather that we should love life so generously, without picking and choosing, that we automatically include it (life’s other half) in our love…”
“It is only because we exclude it that death becomes more and more foreign to us and, ultimately, our enemy.”
“So long as we stand in opposition to Death we will disfigure it…. Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love… “
(Rilke quotes by Joanna Macy, cited in Brain Pickings)
Death can open our hearts
Sitting at the bedside of someone who is dying may be painful, yet dying is often described by those who have had this experience as a sacred passage, not unlike the passage of birth.
I loved being with my friend Jaralene during her five-year journey with pancreatic cancer. I did not love the cancer–I considered it cruel. Yet Jaralene, who cherished her life without denying death, offered me, through her presence, a way to live more fully. Whenever I talked with her, I felt as though I dropped into an altered space where I was more connected to what is precious about life. I felt closer to the veil.
I don’t want to romanticize death or deny that it can be bitter, unyielding, and infinitely difficult. A friend died unexpectedly yesterday; I’m walking around stunned.
Watching my mother slowly slip away in hospice care over the past two years has tested my patience while reinforcing my love. It’s not easy. Still, as I sit near her, I feel as though I’m in rarified air, a little closer to the edge of that liminal space between the material world and the afterlife–the space that those who first celebrated Halloween understood.
There’s so much more I could say about death, but not today. Fall is the time when nature offers leaves a chance to fall and plants a chance to die so that new life can come again. Greeting death through nature is not morbid, so shouldn’t we welcome death as a natural part of our human lives?
On this last day of Dia de los Muertos, let’s honor life while also celebrating death. Maybe it’s time for tequila!
By bringing death into life we remember those who have gone before and acknowledge death, if not as a best friend, at least as an on-going participant in our lives.