November 1, the cusp of winter, marks a season of longer, darker nights in Minnesota. This is a chilly season of damp, gray clouds. Against the gloom of a twilight sky pierced by the black limbs of bare trees, it is easy to think of death.
November begins with All Saints Day, a celebration of the martyrs, apostles, and other exemplars of the Christian faith whose souls have ascended to heaven. All Souls’ Day follows it with remembrance of faithful, ordinary people who have died. In Mexico, and among Mexican communities in the United States – including mine – November 2 is el Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, a day I try to observe with reverence.
Why do I, a well-educated Anglo, celebrate a day that is a fusion of Christian All Souls’ Day and an ancient indigenous Mexican celebration of ancestors. Do the spirits of the dead really return?
Yes, I think the spirits return if we want them to. For me, el Día de los Muertos is a time in which I break out of the linerarity of modern chronological time and return to something older and deeper – the cyclicality of life where the past, present, and future exist simultaneously (as it also does in quantum physics).
Viewed from fleeting acquaintance with Mexican culture, Day of the Dead conjures up images of skeletons, crania or skulls, and people dressed for a party. It is that but it’s much more than that. The ubiquitous tableaux of skeletal figures eating, drinking, walking skeleton dogs, and copulating convey the idea that, whatever your status, death isn’t final but makes all equal. The day takes death seriously without becoming macabre, yet it is celebratory without being trivial.
I celebrated this day in Oaxaca with the family where I was living. They cleaned and decorated the family grave on November 1. Most families leave flowers and candles but they didn’t. The extended family’s ofrenda or altar in the home stood bedecked with flor de muerto, a tall, pungent marigold in vases next to a photo of the deceased family patriarch. Around the photo were things the man loved in life: bowls of beans and chocolate, a bottle of mescal and a pack of cigarettes, candles and loaves of pan de muerto (bread). The family put out these symbolic offerings to invite his spirit to visit them again.
We spent the day together – much like American families do at Thanksgiving – sharing memories and telling stories, drinking mescal and agua de jamaica (hibiscus flavored water), and feasting on mole con pollo, chicken in mole that Estela, my host, prepared in a ceramic pot over a charcoal brazier in the courtyard.
El Día de los Muertos exhibits both the carnal and spiritual aspects of human life and death because we are both. This day would be meaningless – at least to me – if it were so spiritual as to be devoid of any material or visual expression. As Thomas Merton wrote, “The spiritual life is first of all a life … to be lived… If we are to become spiritual, we must remain men [mortals].” [i] In short, the spiritual and mortal part integral parts of each other and not opposites.
I’m a historian by training and avocation. Nature and education imbued me with a sense of the past, the multiple intricacies of cause and effect, the importance of facts and documentation, the dynamic of analysis and synthesis. At first glance, my professional attributes would not seem to lead toward accepting an idea that the spirits of the dead return. How do I hold these seemingly conflicting ideas at the same time?
It’s not as difficult as it looks. By a return of the spirits, I mean I a fleeting sense of their distinct personality that endures in memories infused with emotions tied to particular times, places, and people.
Those I’ve known and loved, and who have died – like my parents – return to me from time to time in particular moments. No, I don’t see them as visual phantoms or hear their voices, nor do I try to communicate with the dead. It’s more subtle than that. I listen. There is so much we don’t heard because we aren’t listening.
As our family’s historian, I’ve read reams of letters written by my parents, aunts, grandparents, and ancestors dating back to the 1840s. I’ve come to know each correspondent by their distinct “voice”, or style of expression. Through their words, I’m acquainted with them, and know their personalities, their souls. They are present to me through their writings, putting what is in their hearts on the pages. Isn’t that a kind of visitation by the dead? And don’t they still live as long as their words endure?
This brings me back to el Día de los Muertos. Some Mexican families hold vigils before the ofrendas in their homes, praying for their difuntos and awaiting the return of their spirits. For years, I spent evenings spent pouring over 170 years’ worth of old letters, teasing out the details of our family’s story. At the time, I had thought of it as historical research, Then, in Mexico, it occurred to me these hours were also a kind of vigil with the dead. And doesn’t telling their stories bring them if not their spirits into momentary being? I think so.
My parents have died, physically. I don’t know if they now “live”, as I understand conscious living, in some other dimension presently inaccessible to me. It’s an open question science can’t answer. Some fundamental questions – like those of faith and meaning – lie beyond the bounds of scientific inquiry because the spiritual doesn’t conform to physical laws. I think of my parents as living in what orthodox Christian creeds affirm as a “communion of saints”, a unity of the living and the dead in a relationship with God as they know God.
When I lived with a family in Puebla several years ago, my host asked for my impression of Día de los Muertos. Our conversation unfolded as I explained some of the differences between American and Mexican concepts of death. Then I described how my mother had died several years before, at home, in her house, as she had wished. As I described her, I drew on memories of her face, her voice, and her mannerisms. The description of my mother’s character and virtues, like the flowers, pan de muerto, cigarettes, and bowls of chocolate, created a verbal ofrenda every bit as real as any physical items. In speaking of her aloud, I invited and then felt something of her presence in the moment.
These are subjective and personal experiences but I believe they are accessible to anyone who pays attention. My understanding and observance of this day is a fusion of my rationalist training and religious formation. For a day, I can pass beyond the limits of linear time and spend a moment in the eternal.
I published this post a year ago, but repost it for you because it aptly sums up my experience and understanding of life, death and what comes after.
[i] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, (Shambhala, 1993), p. 10.