Day of the Dead

We Americans rarely think about death. We like to watch it on a big screen well enough, but in real life, we just don't do death. Perhaps we should. Perspective is precious. The greatest gift of the shadow of death is the challenge to really live life. With full consciousness. And conscience.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

November 2 is the halfway point of autumn, also called the cross-quarter day.

By the half-way point of fall we are surrounded by a ambient prescience of impending death. Death and decline. Death and disappearance. The sun seems to be dying as we approach the winter solstice six weeks away. Our world is steeped in deep shadows, the light decreases daily, dimming toward the shortest, darkest day of the year. And the year, itself, is reaching the end; drawing to a close. Another cycle completing its course. The birds and animals have departed, gone south or underground for the duration. The trees, the vineyards and fields are stripped bare, exposed to the first frost. Their lost leaves create a compost cover like a cozy comforter for the land. Dead and decomposing, they feed and warm life contained inside the earth. Incubating.

And we, too. We pull ourselves close; cover up and snuggle down. We naturally spend more time inside now. And we tend to be more introspective. Come in upon ourselves. In the season full of shadows we are incline to explore the darkness inside of us. The shadows of our psyche. The shade of our fear. The specter of our soul. And what we discover there, if we are willing to recognize it, is the inevitability of our own demise. Everything does, after all, die, doesn't it?

"I live but I cannot live forever.
Only the great earth lives forever.
The great sun is the only living thing."
- KiowaCrazy-Dog Song

How could we contemplate life without death? What could it ever mean? Death is a part of life. The life cycle includes death, as light includes the shadows, as the day includes the night. The shadow of death offers us the insight to comprehend the vast yet vulnerable continuum of life. Understanding this, we are able to begin to imagine our own place in the eternal procession of the ages. We are reminded of all those who have preceded us and all those who will follow. Successions of generations. Like the fruit of a tree, the generations bud, bloom, ripen then fall, each in their own turn. And the death of each, nurtures and informs the life of the next. Linking the living and dead together in one unbroken chain.

The autumn cross-quarter day, when all of nature seems to be dying, has long been observed as a feast of the dead in Northern cultures. The occasion at once mourns and rejoices the death of the bounty of the land. Lamenting the demise of the animals and plants while at the same time, thankful for their death which brings us life. In hunting cultures, the corpses of the slain animals were commonly wined and dined in style, in great ceremony as befits a hero. A banquet after the fact. A roast, as it were. Meat was placed in the mouth of the dead beast so that its spirit would gossip about how hospitable these people were. This, hopefully, would encourage other animals to approach them to be killed, too.

The celebration of death's feeding life, expanded to include the care and feeding of the dead by the living. By acknowledging those who walked before us, we can set our own life into context. The practice of paying homage to past generations - the veneration of the ancestors - keeps that connection intact through the ages. We put our own paths into perspective by recognizing the trail blazers who made it possible. Those from whom we have inherited our world. Those to whom we owe our lives. Those whose blood and pain and guilt and triumph travels through our own brains and bodies. To those, who are our roots, we toast our thanks.

"Here it is, the tobacco. I am certain that you, O ghost,
are not very far away, that in fact you are standing
right in back of me, waiting for me to reach you the pipe
and tobacco, that you might take it along with you,
that likewise you are waiting for your food
to take on your journey."
- Winnebago Prayer to the Ghost

The Asian cult of the family is an extremely precious precept. The family group is primary in society. Each small grouping of relations is joined together with other such groups into larger and larger assemblies. The common thread that links them all is their one, mutual ancestor. And the understanding that all of humankind is an extended family. In the season of gathering chill, midsummer until mid fall, cultures throughout Asia celebrate some form of festival of death. In India, it is Pitra Visarjana Amavasya;in Laos, it is Ho Khao Padap Dinh; in Japan, it is Obon; and in Cambodia, it is Prachum Ben. In Vietnam it is Trung Nguyen, Wandering Soul's Day; in China, Chung Yüan, the Hungry Ghost Festival; in the People's Republic, Chieh Tsu, the Receiving Ancestors Festival."Oh, you who are our ancestors, who are departed, deign to come and eat!," the dead are called into supper in Cambodia on the Festival of the Dead. In Persia, food and drink were placed in the hall of the dead. The Dahomey of West Africa prepare a harvest ritual called Setting the Table and invite the spirits of the ancestors. In Sicily as well, the table is set for those returning from the grace on I Morti, The Dead.

Families in Mexico and parts of Italy hold picnics in the cemetery with the past generations right on their graves. A sort of breakfast in bed for the dead. Feasting the dead is even evident in our language. The word "ghost" and "guest" both derive from the same Germanic root, geist, and were pronounced the same until only recently. At festivals of the dead everywhere, special treats were featured for the enjoyment of those on both side of the borderline of whatever it is that divides life and death, this world and the next. Pan de muertos, bread of the dead, round sweet bread decorated on top with baked dough bones and purple sugar is baked once a year in Mexico on the Day of the Dead. In Germany, people consume seelen brot, soul bread, to save a soul from purgatory. Italians eat sweets confected of egg white, chopped almonds and sugar shaped like tibia and skeletons, ossi da morto, bones of the dead. Sicilians bake elaborate ritual breads for the dead. Armuzzi, souls of the dead, are shaped like two hands in repose, crossed over a breast, the fingers spread wide like wings.

"Fall is the season of harvest and death.
It also gets me hungry,
- Armando, Grade 5, P.S. 58

Celtic burial cairns were opened to release dead souls and air out the interiors of their tombs. The old ones were offered sacrificed animals, entertained and fed in exchange for gifts of sweets from the underworld. But in addition to the benign and beloved ghosts wandering about on Samhain, there were also innumerable fairies and goblins, strange specters and evil spirits released into the dark by Lord Samhain, Lord of Death. For hundreds of years Christian missionaries tried without success to suppress this heathen death feast for the Church. The worship of the dead became All Soul's Day on which prayers are offered for Christian souls. And only Christian souls. All others, those doomed souls whose burials were not consecrated in Christ,were thought to return to earth on the eve of All Hallows to haunt the living.

The Spaniards, French and Portuguese who landed in the Western Hemisphere brought with them a Latin version of All Soul's Day. Their customs merged with those of the Native Americans, who, too, observed a fall Feast of the Dead. The Laguna Pueblo people visited the cemeteries upkeep the grave sites and to serve ritual feasts to the departed ones. It was also the practice of the Aztecs to attend to the graves of ancestors at mid fall. These were weeded and swept; markers scrubbed and painted. Most important of all, fresh flowers, sacred chrysanthemums, were presented in profusion to the dead. White for children and yellow for adults. It also appropriate to offer chrysanthemums as the flower of the dead among the Creoles of New Orleans and throughout the Orient.

The amalgamation of these two traditions is Dia de los Muertos. On the Day of the Dead, like their Aztec ancestors before them, modern Mexicans gather to clean and decorate the cemeteries. They clean the atmosphere by lighting candles and copal on the grave stones. A picnic feast is then shared among the living and dead, recognizing no difference between them. Those who are dead were once living, and those who are now alive, will one day die. There is demonstrated on Dia de los Muertos a most primal and personal identification with death. A palpable intimacy. People paint their faces as skeletons and go about their daily business. Special toys, dolls and tableaus are sold depicting skeleton cops and skeleton banditos; skeleton bus drivers and skeleton baseball players. Skeleton dentists and patients. Skeleton brides and grooms. Skeleton nuns and ballerinas. Skeleton dogs and cats. Everybody has a skeleton, after all.

This fact of life is sweetened with skeleton cookies and candies shaped like skulls, coffins and grave stones. Calaveras, meaning "skulls" and "corpse" is the name of greeting cards with teasing poems and cartoons, like funny valentines, which are sent to friends, public figures and even policemen and priests. These make fun of character flaws, foibles and faulty political positions. All of which are ultimately, pitifully inconsequential, you see, because everyone is, after all, a calavera and dead already. This line of reasoning does tend to lend a certain perspective to things! Makes a person think.

Unfortunately, we Americans rarely - if ever - think about death if we can possibly help it. We like to watch it on a big screen well enough, but in real life, we just don't do death. Perhaps we should. Perspective is precious. The greatest gift of the shadow of death is the challenge to really live life. With full consciousness. And conscience.

"Death is coming,
Life going
The world is turning.
People are starving."
- Karen, Grade 3, PS 122

Popular in the Community