Today is the first day of Dia de los Muertos; may we celebrate it in our hearts…


In her novel Animal Dreams, Barbara Kingsolver describes a typical Dia de los Muertos as celebrated by the small, poor village of Grace, Arizona:

“All Souls’ Day dawned cool, and the people of Grace put on their sweatshirts and gave thanks. The heat wave was broken. By half past eight the sun was well up and sweatshirts peeled off again, but it was still a perfect day.

Every able-bodied person in Grace climbed the canyon roads to converge on the cemetery.

It was the bittersweet Mexican holiday, the Day of the Dead, democratic follow-up to the Catholic celebration of All Hallows. Some people had business with the saints on November 1, and so went to mass, but on November 2 everybody had business at the graveyard. The families traipsing slowly uphill resembled harvester ants, carrying every imaginable species of real and artificial flowers: bulging grocery sacks of chrysanthemums and gladioli; tulips made from blue and pink Styrofoam egg cartons; long-stemmed silk roses bouncing in children’s hands like magic wands; and unclassifiable creations out of fabric and colored paper and even the plastic rings from six-packs. . .

Most families divided their time between the maternal and paternal lines, spending mornings on one set of graves and afternoons on the other. Emelina and the boys staked out the Domingos plot and set to work sweeping and straightening. One of the graves, a great uncle of J.T.’s named Vigilancio Domingos, was completely bordered with ancient-looking tequila bottles, buried nose down. Mason and I spent half the morning gathering up the strays and resetting them all in the dirt, as straight as teeth. It was a remarkable aesthetic –I don’t mean just Uncle Vigilancio, but the whole. Some graves had shrines with niches peopled by saints; some looked like botanical gardens of paper and silk; others had the initials of loved ones spelled out on the mound in white stones.

The unifying principle was that the simplest thing was done with the greatest care. It was a comfort to see this attention lavished on the dead. In these families you would never stop being loved.

In Kingsolver’ s Animal, Vegetable, Mineral’ she writes of the Day of the Dead:

“Dia de los Muertos is still an entirely happy ritual of remembering one’s departed loved ones, welcoming them into the living room by means of altars covered with photographs and other treasured things that bring memory into the present. Families also visit cemeteries to dress up the graves. I’ve seen plots adorned not just with flowers but also seashells, coins, toys, the Blessed Virgin, cigarettes, and tequila bottles. (To get everybody back, you do what you have to do.) Then the family members set out a picnic, often directly on top of a grave, and share reminiscences about the full cast of the beloved dead, whether lured in by the flowers or the tequila, and it’s the best party of the year. Food is the center of this occasion, especially aromatic dishes that are felt to nourish spiritual presence…”

The holiday had its roots among the Aztecas as an homage to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, who rules the underworld. Thus, graves, alters (ofrendas) and cemetery archways are often decorated with masses of Mexican marigolds known cempasúchil (originally named cempoaxochitl, Nāhuatl for “twenty flowers”). In modern Mexico the marigold is sometimes called Flor de Muerto (Flower of Dead). These flowers are thought to attract souls of the dead to the offerings.  Some say that the cempasúchil are the flowers of 400 lives, and that the scent of their petals creates a pathway for the souls to visit the ofrendas and return to their graves.

It’s a day for reminiscences of the departed, anecdotes, and often humorous.  Sugar and ceramic skulls, muertos (bread of the dead) and skeletons abound.  Some areas spend Nov. 1 honoring their dead children (Día de los Inocentes) and Nov. 2 as Día de los Muertos or Día de los Difuntos (the deceased).

Some cities hold festive parades in which participants dress and wear masks, paint their faces…to honor those who’ve already made their journeys to the great and mysterious beyond.

29 responses to “Today is the first day of Dia de los Muertos; may we celebrate it in our hearts…

  1. What a lovely post, wendye.

    Indeed, that concept of picnics in the graveyards in remembrance of the departed is a warm and needful reminder that history has not only a negative aspect, as in ‘those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it’; but more importantly that the things men do should never remain interred with their bones, but have this memory constantly reinstated on the surface of our lives.

    (I first wrote, thinking of Shakespeare, ‘the good things’ – but no, it is all things, the bones as well. We have to remember all things in the gentle light of this ongoing day.)

    It must have been in that spirit that the catacombs outside Rome were not only tombs but also places of worship in an intimacy the graveyard picnics continue to inhabit in loving proximity to the dear earth from which we all come and to which we return.

    • your comment answered on of my wonderings: ‘do the stinkers among the dead also get honored?’ i suppose you’re right, juliania, and most might believe that they can turn the stinkers’ poison into medicine…with love and light and offerings of wonderful food. (not sure i could, really…) ; -)

      i think it was reading kingsolver who’d first introduced me to the importance and ramifications of the celebration, although i’d thought it was in ‘six pigs in heaven’. i’m so glad you enjoyed it.

      i hadn’t known that about the catacombs also being places of worship; fascinating. i’d seen a fine piece on bolivia’s celebration yesterday, including some fine things evo had said. can’t find it now, but i did find these:

      Day of the Dead Celebrations Across Latin America’; Day of the Dead originated from Indigenous traditions in Latin America to remember the ones who have passed. It’s one of the most important celebrations not only in Mexico, but also in Guatemala, Ecuador, Bolivia and other communities across the region and the United States.
      teleSUR takes a look at celebrations from past years.

      another gallery w/ no dates; saturday will be the largest public celebrations, as with tucson and other SW cities.

      oh: and the monarchs! dang, i loved that!

  2. Magnificent. Especially your and Juliania2’s discussion about who gets honored. And notice of the monarchs who were just through here October 14.

    • lol. juliania is obviously a ‘gooder’ person than i, so i’m glad ya enjoyed the exchange. i only was able to forgive my nasty and dead paternal grandparents in my dreams, dunno if that really most sincerely took…or not. but my sister? she’ll outlive me, but there are enough scatological expressions for what one might imagine doing…to her grave. ;-)

      ach, how fine to hear the monarchs came through to visit you! i’m dripping with envy. i saw not one, which is why i value the monarchs, bees, moths, and swallowtails in my banner photos so much. two wee swallowtails stopped by this year. but as for the monarchs, couldn’t my dead relations i do honor have taken wing and come to offset the other stinkers’ absences? ;-)

    • one ‘honoring’ i’d remembered that might fit the ‘stinkers’ category is La Calavera Catrina you see in the parades, often as giant figures. i think there were a few in the telesur photo arrays. sometimes she has a male escort, but wiki says of her:

      ‘La Calavera Catrina is a 1910–1913 zinc etching by famous Mexican printmaker, cartoon illustrator and lithographer José Guadalupe Posada. The image depicts a female skeleton dressed only in a hat befitting the upper class outfit of a European of her time. Her chapeau en attende is related to European styles of the early 20th century. She is offered as a satirical portrait of those Mexican natives who, Posada felt, were aspiring to adopt European aristocratic traditions in the pre-revolution era. She, in particular, has become an icon of the Mexican Día de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.’

      yanno, puttin’ on euro-elite airs, ‘n gettin’ uppity? the gorgeous autumn-leafed hat in the face-painted photo in the OP is likely in similar homage.

      on edit: nope; neither of those arrays had catrina, but this one does, as well as catrina and her catrin (at the end).

  3. Oh yes, the monarchs! I saw only one midsummer here, and they used to come both spring to feed on the lilacs and fall for the chamisa. I’m very glad to hear the migrations are continuing. In New Zealand, now that it’s spring, my family there is nurturing the southern clan on a milkweed named swan plant.

    • oh, joy for them. we also a cultivate a variety of milkweed here, as well as a zillion flowers and a few shrubs butterflies love. but if i understand correctly, the monarchs are one, maybe a key one, of the canary-in-the-coalmine species that indicate eco-collapse. as with you, mr. wd saw one or two north of here where he was working, but that’s all, where there used to be whole kaleidescopes (swarms). we’ve at least had some bees again, of several different sorts…very welcome guests, of course.

  4. endless shrimp at Red Lobsters!

    “bring out your dead!” MP’s the holy grail. I remember that the Xian liturgical tradition of praying for the dead was anathema in my low church chicken fried world growing up. as the KJV says, “it is appointed unto man ONCE to die & after that, THE JUDGMENT.” so what’s the point of praying for the dead? game over for them. you don’t pray for crawdads simmering in the gumbo do you? as for something comforting in death, “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” that is, for that narrow sliver of people who mouthed pious Jesusy b.s. the Lord knows who is his and who ain’t.

    oh imagine my consternation when my simple Catholic pinoy girlfriend left cookies out on the dining table for the Departed on Halloween! what the hell do the Dead need that candle for? lost their way? rubbish. ancestors? isn’t it b/c of them that we are in this right bloody mess?

    well, at the rate we are going, we’ll probably all be w/the ancestors sooner than we think. maybe making up for lost time. can’t help but thinking we spawn of evangelical suburbia might be missing something in the “bring out your dead” department.

    • lol on yer new name. i did go watch the ‘bring out yer dead’ (‘i ain’t dead yet!’) thanks for the fun. now as to praying for the dead on these several days, some catholics seem to, at least at church, and by way of decorating w/ santos. but it’s a heathen holiday, azteca, and to me it’s by way of a celebration of death as a most inevitable part of life.

      funny you should mention pinoy GF (yep, i’d had to look it up) leaving cookies out as we used to for santa. but by and large, although folks seem to eat the vast array of foods, some consider it without nutritive value, and the dead have eaten it. that sorta parallels some sweat lodge leaders who refuse to use a heated rock ever again, as the spirit of the rock is….dead.

      and oy, i’d even had to discover what KJV meant. ;-) but garsh, mickey; i’m glad i wasn’t steeped in the faith as a kid as you were. i only went to church to be in the choir. fire the best choir director in the planet? see ya later, jealous cretins…

      youch! on your last paragraph and this, too: ‘ancestors? isn’t it b/c of them that we are in this right bloody mess?’ nice to see you, endless shrimp.

  5. As a Catholic who by default lapsed because of an adolescent obstinacy to the dictatorial nature of it all — what with our being a mere ten years of age when we the collective 5th grade classes were to go en masse (pun intended, why not?) to learn from the clergy what we’d need to accept the Sacrament of Confirmation (choosing yet another name being what most of us probably had in mind (I’d’ve become davidly Christopher Joseph)) — I do eschew the institutional church as such, but I have no problem with the rank & file and their rituals, and any mishmash of ritual, derivative or not. I even find the beauty in this entry.

    Indeed, even if only because I was lucky enough in my eight-year indoctrination not to have suffered what so many have suffered from the pastors and priests and deacons and brothers (only one of the nuns was ethically/morally beyond the pale, and even then only as the B-word), I hold great respect for those of the rank & file striving to extend human goodness to their communities. My most recent experience was with the man who was pastor of our parish when I left after grade eight. He came to my father’s funeral in ’07 and gave a moving account of the ways of the living and the dead as it related to my dad’s siblings, all still living, and how their paths and deeds toward one another in life were to be going forward.

    Sure, it involved his crazy or not so crazy beliefs, and he even went so far as to read a brief passage from “the book” (against my mother’s wishes, but it didn’t bother her). As a matter of fact, the knowledge he displayed, of family names and who went where and how and with whom was particularly remarkable, as he had had no contact with any of us or those who would have known this information; he had remembered it from the close relationship he’d had with them in the 80s.

    I can dig ritual. I even got my own.

    • a fine un-homiy, davidly. first, it’s good to hear that you never suffered under the priests and church/parochial school authority figures, save for the B nun. but pardon my ignorance: after confirmation, does one really get another name, (not)davidly christopher joseph?

      i agree with accepting, even lauding the rank and file religious who extend themselves in goodness for their communities. the exceptions are those in a small community who pat themselves on the back for the same…publicly. and those who join church and state politically, or try to convert me. ;-)

      it’s also heart-warming to hear how you and your family appreciated your former pastor’s un-homily of your father at his funeral. that he’d recalled so much is surely some sort of testament to both your father and his siblings, as well, isn’t it?

      i grabbed the tweet for the photo of kite constructions and flying in guatemala this year; it’s the sole photo from the article, but que hermoso!

      • An additional name. They called it a confirmation name and we were told to pick that of a saint or canonical figure who inspired us or some such. If I recall correctly, Joseph is the name I was kicking around before I decided to play dodge ball instead for the next three grades, until I escaped.

        • thanks for the explanation. i’d never heard about confirmation names. another question or two, if i may, sir dodge ball: the school couldn’t force you take the classes, say on pain of expulsion or something? and did any of your classmates decline the offer?

          • Every year one or more 5th graders would miss enough of the group instruction that, as the story went then, they would leave during regular class time to make it up in the 6th grade, after which they’d have their confirmation. I know a couple of people who went that route, including, coincidentally enough, my best friend in the 5th grade.

            Somehow, in the 6th grade I managed to avoid going with my best friend (and one or two others, I think) for the contingency make-ups. I don’t quite recall how it went down but I must have been ill for several days. I never attended any classes, though. At any rate, I know that by then I had somehow developed my disinclination.

            The instruction must have been on a pretty strictly planned schedule, otherwise they’d’ve just had people meet up with whomever to go through the process. At any rate, there were at least two occasions I remember in the 7th and 8th grade, respectively, when a teacher addressed me on the issue, the second time in a somewhat serious fashion. What can I say? I just kept shrugging it off.

            I’d love to know the stats on Catholic school kids like myself who did the same.

            • given your wondering, i just learned more than i’d ever cared to about confirmation and catechism classes. ;-) and the best being claimed: st. joseph catechism. never found your answer, but this page on catholic stats might be of interest to you given the declining numbers…

              but i do love your term ‘disinclination’, by the by. the only kinda/sorta parallel in our lives was when our daughter asked us to let her skip the DARE program in fifth grade, as she knew the cop teacher to be a thug and a bully who loved his gun. it was fine with us, but: the teacher made her sit out in the hall as though she were being punished. which, of course she was. #asshats.

              • Not a godawful lot tabulates the value of a human being better than their having engendered a young mind disinclined to keep her mouth shut when some other adult in the world is talking shit. Your case is particularly tasteful insofar as it relates to yours having called out someone who was shit from ‘go’ and not just following the rules. The 5th grade link is nice, too.

                • it was cool that even our daughter was offended by the po-po’s penchant for…whippin’ out his gun to wow the kiddies. he was eventually fired, but for po-po and sheriff’s deputies to get fired took monumental efforts a illegal behaviors.

                  bitch time: last weekend an absentee neighbor brought two hunters down to his place to hunt deer; they got two beautiful bucks. this week, mr. wd’d been seeing a pimped out white pickup haunting the place in the mornings and evenings, obviously hunting (after a fashion). there were two of the resident bucks in our field, and as mr. wd left to go run down on the HS track, he told me to call his cell if they shot one on our place. so i watched and watched. six does went near the neighbor’s fence, no clear look to see if they’d hopped the fence, never saw the bucks even travel that far, when four shots rang out. wtf?

                  never saw who got shot, where, nuttin’, but by the time mr. wd got back home, they pulled into our driveway, and explained that of course the bucks were on paul’s place, they wounded one, and it hopped the fence into our place. can’t hardly call a man a liar, but i did (ahem) quiz them, as did mr. wd. anyhoo, yeah, we told em they could look around, we sure didn’t want the meat to go to waste.

                  but here’s the thing: rather than all three of them looking for a blood trail, following it to the ends of the earth to put it out of its misery, they hopped in the truck to ‘track’ the dear thing that way. #what jerks.

                  sorry for the angst, but writing it down…helps a bit. well, maybe not. but i also advised them that culling three of the six resident bucks here already…was enough, not that they’ll care.

              • Thanks for the link:

                About nine in ten adult Catholics have celebrated their First Communion/Eucharist or their First Reconciliation. Slightly fewer, 84 percent, have been confirmed. Younger Catholics are less likely than older Catholics to have celebrated First Communion, First Reconciliation, or Confirmation.

                I imagine that most of the sixteen percent that don’t get confirmed hadn’t attended Catholic school. My mother recently told me that the method I described replaced an earlier “auto-confirmation” process. As such, she was complicit in my truancy, which the teachers I mentioned before must have been aware of.

                • well good on mama davidly, then, woot! ‘auto-confirmation’ ;-) reminds me a bit of how hard it is to leave the LDS church after being baptized. it took one of our friends three full years to hasten ‘excommunication’ or whatever was required. and as far as i know, the church hasn’t actually ended the creepy process of mormons in need of searching ancestry records and baptizing dead people as..yanno….mormons. one way for unmarried, childless women to get into heaven and sit on god’s knee, ask questions…or close.

                  i suppose the good news is that my plea to the deer harvesters may have worked, as they haven’t been back since. the bad news is that the deer haven’t either, save for two who finally came out of hiding (or returned) and lay down by the house yesterday afternoon.

  6. Jesse the Mind Ventura

    I’m curious about the relation b/n failure to memorialize the dead & addiction in our society. the repetitive compulsive self-destructive behavior of an addict, the automation of a machine, is the posture a body is to take within capitalist production. (wait, wait. need a smoke break…) and along comes Mr. Death…don’t let it bother you. get back to work. are you depressed? what can we offer you instead of time to grieve?

    the out of self-control consumer whose desires are to be played upon w/o friction by marketing con men is, I think, the same kind of thing. run the hamster wheel all day to get the high fructose sugar water after work and sit in front of the hamster tellie, now in HD, programs provided by the makers & marketers of your favorite sugar water.

    of course we do remember the dead in our society. all the time. one long victory narrative. no open caskets please, it’s spoil the airshow above & the majorettes & marching bands below. the NFL is our version of the Homeric funeral games. except, you know, stupid.

    anyway, per Christian tradition, the first to see the resurrected Jesus were the women going to perform the rites for the dead. Control of grief, incl. who one is & is not allowed to grieve for, is part of the strategy of the consolidation of rule. Antigone cannot be allowed her grief for her brother, who fought “on the wrong side” of the city of Thebes. and the rites of grief are to be denied the women whose men gave their lives so heroically for greater Athens (the last thing Pericles says in his Funeral Oration.) the religious, social, and individual customs of person, family, tribe, etc., become subsumed under & channeled through the ideal of service to the state. Service guarantees citizenship! as Big Bro gov’t constantly says in Verhoeven’s “Starship Troopers.”

    The silencing & pathologizing of grief has advanced a long ways beyond Pericles’ day and Protestantism has done much to help it along with its effacing of *private* grief from *public* life. Because grief, grief at death, is largely de-ritualized & completely privatized. (a la, you could lose a mom or a child & your work has zippo obligation to do shit about it on your behalf.)

    “in tradition begins understanding,” says the air force colonel (?) in the original Twin Peaks. sharing via tradition.

    • Jesse the Mind Ventura

      and in our society, “service to the state” includes price checking at Target, shoving grease into cars at Jiffy Lube, and trolling for gmo products for Monsanto on Facebook. and upgrading the nuclear stockpiles. and let’s not get started on the tree-chopping going on round these parts. as the good book says, “is a tree a man that you should cut it down?”

      • Goldenly expressed and infused w/ a mythology I can relate to, Jesse the Mind. Do you mind if I call you Pretty Boy Bobby the Brain Heenan? Never mind that. The hamster, the sugar water, the advertising, the muther ducking wheel within the wheel! Your revelation of these concepts speaks to me. Resonates.

        Then, as you allude, there’s not just the suppression of affirming ritual but the addiction to ritual that is so destructive that, wheels being wheels, is taken for the real thing. Many a consumer addict is apt to browbeat any critic of the faux mythology with the full support of their codependent birth-to-couch-to-work-to-death comrades in cultizenry.

        “Achievement is its own reward. Pride obscures it,” said Maj Garland Briggs of Twin Peaks lore. Not even the wisdom of a cult TV, honorable-hero type character reiterating the truth of one of the Seven Deadly can convince a collective unit of humans that its self-assessment is not only bullshit, but toxic.

        Interesting (and I’ll say SPOILING) that the woman who admonished Leland Palmer — murdering father of his daughter Laura — not to “ruin this too” when he fell upon her casket in schizofrantic grief would turn out also to be possessed of the evil spirits our world tells us we should pass our time with when we’re not being otherwise productive crankers of the wheel.

    • i do wish i were more…adept…this evening at appreciating all of your nuanced and angry comment, jesse the mind. but it’s an interesting thought, the relationship between opioid addiction and failure to have time to grieve. i’d have to add: to express rampant, everyday fear now, as well, especially among the working class, where workers are exploited by the need to hurry to produce lest they lose their jobs, and working in terrifyingly unsafe working environments.

      oddly enough, i’d thought to have tried to segue this diary into some thoughts from dialogue in that ‘shadowlands’ film we watched. yanno how some dialogue trip you into seeing a zillion different related themes, especially when the dialogue is spare? but one of the themes was human suffering and death as a commonality, but…i’ll hush now, as i just might try to parlay it into a discussion one day soon. philosophy, psychology, spirituality…and authenticity. or something. love ya, tom joad on the road. wish we café denizens could have your back in more ways than…in our prayers and thoughts. speaking of which, i wonder what happened to diane?

    • Jesse the Mind Ventura

      death as interruption is barely allowed. you are not allowed to stop your routine even when you die. the leveling nature of death, like birth, (“death marches w/equal pace against the towers of the rich & the hovels of the poor” Horace), the disorientation & anxiety about the meaning of it all (esp. being a sous deep fry chef at KFC’s or losing your life for Iraqi oil) and the like…must be suppressed.

      “Honey, whose copy of “the Denial of Death” is this?” Annie Hall. this kind of thing is just one part of a nexus, a matrix, a complex of denials & repressions in our society. take the generally miserable, port a potty level of retching wretchedness that is the typical job in the US, e.g. i’m not saying people become opioid addicts b/c of their failure to get a grip on mortality. (or am I?) anxiety about paying rent has driven many a good soul to the comfort of the bottle, as we all know.

      • i reckon fear of not paying rent, feeding one’s family, eviction, has driven many to opioids, too, myownself. but ouch on not being to allowed to stop one’s routine even after dying. those one leaves alive, i can see. how fine that you and davidly seem to be kindred souls, even on twin peaks. never did get it myself. ;-)

        but i’ll think about your several comments. i spent most of the day trying to compose a diary in the confluence of several of these themes, and i may end up being a vacuous sort of epistle in the end. but failure to get a grip on mortality i believe…is there already. gotta make some dinner now….

  7. This along with your previous Hopi tribute impressed me,wendye, that it is our human qualities, the ones we all share that make such ceremonial vivid to us, and not whatever spiritual system we embrace. I have to admit I have just as hard a time with forgiveness as anyone – i was just more fortunate in not suffering the childhood and later shocks that have befallen many and created bitter memories. (The extreme of that would be a terrorist who has seen his mother or infant sibling slaughtered. How does such a one forgive, and woe is he who creates such a problem – how to forgive that?)

    The book about Lincoln I mentioned tells me that was his best quality, not forgiveness but the recognition that he himself would be like those others (whatever they believed or acted upon) were he on the road on which they found themselves. He still had plenty of hangups and probably fell short of that in real life, but it was what distinguished him in those fraught times.

    • i suppose you’re right that it’s our human qualities that can cause us to be rather ecumenical about forms of faith, but i’d add *our best qualities* w/o having time to consider if that’s what i mean. as for you and forgiveness, well said, juliania. i know my mind darts from image to image, but i was reminded (and this would fit for your comment and jason’s above) that when i wrote about ‘respectability politics’ and the black churches, i was grieved or worse, that those families whose kin were murdered by racists hastened t forgive them on the spot.

      and what i found horrid was exactly that they hadn’t had time to grieve, process, pray, meditate, consider…ahead of announcing their forgiveness. i suppose i’d long considered that indigenous ready-laughter was partially a way to deflect the pain of the many genocides they’ve experienced…and still do, especially globally.

      your comments about lincoln are intereesting, i never knew any of that, but here’s my thing about lincoln that i find unforgivable: that he hung 38 dakota during the civil war. yes, when i wrote about it years ago, thd reminded me that he could have hung all of them, so it by way of a political choice, but i can’t buy it, myself. larry long memorialized it in this heart-breakingly poignant song:

  8. i can’t even remember where this should go, but as we were discussing honoring the dead ancestors, who to honor, can love turn any of the miscreants’ poison to medicine, i’d remembered larry long’s version of the beauty way chant. but i couldn’t score a sound icon once again. but this is it: “love will lay hatred down”, aspirational, but still…

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