Life is a mystery. It’s an intangible spark science can’t quite pin down. The life-force lies behind the neurons and electrical pulses and move our bodies. Where does it come from? Why does it exist? And where does it go when our bodies give out? Does it go anywhere? Humans have asked these questions for millennia. They are questions for All Souls’ Day or Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.
The life we see in our world today began eons ago with the “Big Bang” that released all matter into the universe. Is the life-force within each of us a spark from that immense explosion billions of years ago? Is it the same spark that has passed from species to species and generation to generation through transmission, evolution, regression, mutation and adaptation, through creatures large and small, enduring and ephemeral? The fossil record reveals how the life force resurrects after large extinctions and finds new guises better suited to changed circumstances.
And what is death? What happens to the spark, the invisible, intangible part of us—the soul—that defines who we are more completely than our physical appearance? Where does it go? We know nothing for certain. Our opinions are matters of faith.
Today is All Souls’ Day, an occasion to recall or pray for those who have died that they might be at peace or stand in light perpetual. The theology varies from one denomination to the next but the current of belief flows in the same direction.
In Mexico, All Souls’ Day fused with an indigenous celebration of the deceased and became día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead. Most of us are familiar with its outward manifestations as skeletons, crania and the ofrendas or offerings of articles the deceased liked in life. Like Americans at Thanksgiving, distant members of Mexican families return home to tend family graves, share meals and, perhaps, commune with the spirits of the deceased.
I have celebrated Día de los Muertos with Mexican friends in Puebla and Oaxaca where I lived. Each family celebrated in its own way. For some, it was a cultural event like Christmas without religion. For others, a day of spiritual solemnity when the past and present (and perhaps the future) were united. Death isn’t seen as the end but part of a transcendent shift in form and substance. It is true we carry our ancestor’s DNA. Is it possible we bear something of their spirits as well. We may be individuals but we aren’t sui generis.
A century ago, people often observed a year of outward mourning for a spouse or family member. Grieving seems largely privatized these days and many talk of wanting a “closure” to their grief so they can “move on” with their lives and, perhaps, forget. But can we forget and move on without the memories? I don’t think so.
My parents are dead but they visit at odd moments in something deeper than a conscious memory. There’s a sense of their presence just beyond eye-sight, an inaudible voice at my inner ear. Are these visitations? I don’t know but I’m grateful for them. In death, each parent seems more clearly an individual than in the fusion of “MomandDad.” While the pain of loss has ceased, I don’t want “closure” or forgetfulness because I would lose something of myself.
On All Souls’ Day I put up a photo of my parents with a candle as an ofrenda, a focal point for prayer. This year, I added a photo of Lupita, a landlady and loving friend with whom I lived as a student in Mexico. The spark of life burned brightly in her and warmed those around her. Lupita’s sudden death last year at 85 was a shock. There is comfort in pausing to give thanks for those who kindled the spark of life in me. And it is well to remember that I, too, am but dust and to dust I will return someday when my spark moves on.