Dia de los Muertos. Day of the Dead. It has a different ring to it than All Souls’ Day.
Growing up, I had never heard of Day of the Dead, but I remember praying for people who had died and not really knowing what that meant. Dying was something that happened away from real life, to other people. Remembering the departed was a matter of prayer in church, a list of names. They weren’t even dead, they were “departed.”
But there is something heartwarming and emotional about a colorful altar covered with mementos of an earthy, earthly life that was intimately connected to others. A friend of mine always leaves a beer bottle on the altar for his father, because that is something they enjoyed together. So, on my first Dia observance a few years ago I left a bottle of Tabasco for my dad. And chocolate for my grandmother. It was better than seeing their names on a list; I relived moments we had together and told those stories to the people who are around me today. And I heard other people’s stories.
Dia de los Muertos, with all its skeletons and sculls, reminds us that death really happens. It isn’t the sanitized, distant event we tend to shy away from in modern American life. In places where Dia de los Muertos (or similar observance) is observed around the world, death is much more present. And because it is more present, perhaps the victory over death we celebrate in Christianity takes on a different meaning as well. All that color says that we are not in mourning, we are celebrating those we love. Dia de los Muertos is like a family reunion that crosses ALL the generations.