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Celebrating Día de Muertos

”...Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) is such an important occasion. It holds that dying and living are not opposites but rather two parts of one process, with just a breath in between.

“Through this lens, death isn’t an antagonist, a horrifying thing we must look away from. Death is festooned with flowers, candles and brightly colored papel picado because Día de Muertos wants us to look squarely at the way things end.

“It wants us to accept it, laugh at it and revere it. The only thing it asks us to not do is ignore it.

“I’ve come to understand that this holiday isn’t about romanticizing the past or about wishing we could bring those who’ve died back to life. Día de Muertos instead asks us to consider that we exist in conversation with the people who came before us and the people who will come after us.

“It says the border between life and death — and every border we encounter in between — is porous. It asserts the joyful fluidity of being alive.”

To repeat: “With just a breath in between.”

In this lovely and eloquent essay in the Washington Post last week, John Paul Brammer walks us through how he and his family, thoroughly assimilated into American culture since his grandparents emigrated from Mexico, came to understand and celebrate Día de Muertos.

If you've been hanging around this blog during the past two-and-a-half years, you know we sometimes talk about death and dying. Ever since I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I have been working to make my own death acceptable to me or, at least, to find ways to reduce the paralyzing fear that rattled me every time I thought about dying from this terrible disease.

One way took place last Christmas. With the help of an experienced guide, I spent five or six hours under the influence of “magic mushrooms” or psilocybin. Like most others before me, I have never found words to adequately express what transpired that afternoon but it did change me.

The closest I can manage to explain is that I came to see that life and death were two sides of the same door. Not such a dramatic transition after all and it is not far off, is it, from Brammer's “two parts of one process, with just a breath in between?”

(You can read about my “trip” in two parts here and here.)

From the time of my childhood until recently, hardly anyone talked about death or even referenced it much beyond religion-specific rituals. Apparently that is no longer so.

In our weekly Sunday phone visit, my friend Autumn told me that her six-year-old daughter, Catherine, had learned about Día de Muertos this year in her Spanish-language class.

She told her mother all about how it is celebrated by building an alter and decorating it with flowers and photographs of beloved relatives who have died along with, as Brammer explains too, “sugar skulls and marigolds and offerings of food.”

And so Catherine built a Día de Muertos alter at home to honor her grandfather. Here is a photo of Catherine at her alter.


Maybe the holiday will become as important to Catherine as it has become for John Paul Brammer who writes,

”I still look forward to every October, when the bakeries fill with pan de muerto and sugar skulls. I look forward to the first days of November, when the wall between life and death comes tumbling down, and we, no matter who we are or how far away we’ve traveled, find our way home.”

You can read Brammer's entire essay at the Washington Post. If you do not subscribe to this newspaper or have used up your monthly number of free articles, let me know via the “Contact” link at the top of this page.


Thanks for this reminder, Ronni. Yesterday, here in California, my husband and I drove to a nearby town, Santa Paula, to celebrate this special occasion with the locals. Three museums were set up with craft projects for the children, face painting, and several altars. There were cookies, horchata, even dips and chips for everyone. I lived there and taught in the high school for 3 years before moving for graduate school.

There was an altar dedicated to the singer, Prince. I was reminded of a girl in my advanced art class who focused her art projects on Prince, and Purple Rain. I wondered if she was the builder of the altar. It was all very festive and celebratory.....muy divertido.

If any of you have not had an opportunity to watch the lovely animated film, Coco, I urge you to do so. It’s not just for children! It’s all about Dia de los Muertos and family and love.

Our gun violence prevention volunteers in Arizona take part in this celebration each year, remembering victims of firearm deaths, including suicides and unintentional shootings. Ronni, I just want to let you know that your life and words- your MANY words- will live on in all of us who have the honor of reading them. Now, go watch Coco!

Thank you for this post and the link to the article, Ronni! When I watched the movie Coco, I sobbed through some of it. Although it did a great job of educating people on Dia de Muertos, it is a much more universal theme of separation and reunion of families, and a beautiful way to embrace the circle of life. You've been doing such a good job of helping your readers process this whole life/death phenomenon as you've been on this journey, and it's appreciated.

Having grown up in San Antonio, TX, from the age of 4 to 16, I was familiar with Dia de Muertos. What I was really excited about is that the northern Illinois city in which I have lived for more than 40 years, and which has a sizeable and growing Hispanic and Latino community is finally doing some things that reflect that culture. A couple of nearby churches held Dia de Muertos celebrations this year. for the first time. I was unable to go this time around, but now that I know for the future, I'll definitely plan to participate next year. The event that has grown the most, and gets the most support, is a tamale fest, which is a competition for local venues that make these, along with other great food. It's great to see other cultures, which have been around here for much longer than most people might realize, come into the light and be acknowledged and celebrated, and not just for food and music, but for their most dearly held beliefs and values.

I have loved April since you first mentioned her when she flew across the country to be at your side before, during, and after the surgery. And when she blogged here to update us while you were "otherwise engaged" till you could take up the reins, again :-)

And now I love Catherine and the altar to her grandfather (and her dollhouse, too).

One of the best books I’ve ever read on aging and dying is “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End,” by Atul Gawande. Here’s a passage I particularly like: “In the end, people don’t view their life as merely the average of all its moments—which, after all, is mostly nothing much plus some sleep. For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of the whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens.”
Ronni, thank you for sharing your story and insights. I, too, loved the WP essay.

What surprised me the most in the article was that the Mexican government actually promoted Dia de los Muertos as a Mexican holiday in the 70s in order to attract tourism, despite it being an indigenous pre-colonial celebration.

It has held a peculiar fascination for me for years now. I love the idea of the veil between the worlds being the thinnest at that point. I've told my lost loved ones to come on over, but they haven't responded--or else I'm just too "dense" to experience them! I too feel I've become more "binary" in my thinking as I've aged. With photos and paintings of my dead relatives all round me in my little room, it's as if they're still with me.

Just realized that I forgot the "los" part of Dia de los Muertos in my post. Sorry about that. It's just means 'the', but still it's a part of the name of the event and I don't know how I left it off, other than brain and fingers not being totally in sync some times.

Hi Cathy J. Don't worry, we, in México say "Día de Muertos" for the festivities on de 1st and 2d of november.

On of the many, many things I loved about Mexico was the weaving of death through the fabric of every day life. I was never there for Dia de Muertos, but saw lots of skeletal figures, the femme fatale with the large hat, "la flaca", the mariache guys, lots more. Even in advertisements. Oh, and I loved some cemetaries I went to, where families made their own honourings for the deceased. There was the prow of a boat.....for a fisherman? A large part of a newspaper or book for a writer, perhaps. And.........the loved one's area demarcated by headboards of beds and mescal bottles! Meanwhile many people were cleaning, bringing new flowers, enjoying themselves. Cultures are really short changing themselves when they attempt to lock death away in a closet!

I've heard death described as "the second oblivion" -- the first of course being before we were born. I guess we go back to where we came from.

I must have been living under a rock because this year is the first year I've ever heard of Día de Muertos. Your post is the clearest explanation of what it is that I've found and it seems less creepy after reading it. I'll be checking out the Washington Post article next.

Marcia, thank you for that amazing quote about our life being a story! I write - and help others write their own- obituaries and telling a bit of someone’s story is exactly what I try to do!! Most obits are just lists of accomplishments and family members but occasionally you find one that really gives you a glimpse of the person’s life story, and then you smile!

I know I'm posting late and it's likely that no one will read this, but I need to write nonetheless.
I am Mexican having immigrated to the US with my parents when I was 6 months old.
I was always aware of Dia de Los Muertos through trips to Mexico throughout my life.
An interesting fact is that Nov. 1 is Dia de Los Innocentes which translates into Day of the Innocents, and is to celebrate the death of children. Nov. 2 is for adults.
I form my own altar yearly to celebrate my departed family and to continue the tradition with my children and grandchildren.
My mom died last Saturday which was Dia de Los Muertos, and I added her photo to my altar that evening.
Although we had a difficult, complicated relationship, I loved her.

Irma, please accept my condolences. I, too, had “difficult, complicated relationships,” but love abides. I am so sorry for your loss.

As usual, a timely post today, Ronni, with lots of interesting and informative comments.
Irma, I sympathize the loss of your mother and the relationship you two had in life. By continuing to honor her in the after-life, I believe you can create healing in both of your souls.

My mother's culture celebrates the death of a loved one by setting a plate for them at the dinner table on the anniversaries of their death and preparing their favorite foods. The anniversary schedule follows the Buddhist religion for honoring the deceased.

My parents were of different religious backgrounds and felt it was up to us to make a choice as we grew older.

I never believed in life after death until my fiance died. Based on my experiences and readings, I believe the deceased are with us.

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