Sunday, November 2, 2008

Feliz Dia de los Muertos!

I love Day of the Dead. It may be my most favorite holiday - more than Christmas, more than Easter, more even than President's Day.

Like Groundhog Day, it's one of those days that marks an approximate half way point between an equinox and a solstice. In Mexican tradition, Day of the Dead is when the boundary separating the living from the dead is most thin. It is the day to communicate with those who have gone before.

In 2005, K and I had the privilege of accompanying my parents to Oaxaca, Mexico to visit with my mom's side of the family for Dia de los Muertos.

There are three main components to the celebration there. The first is the baking of bread. The second is the building of the ofrendas. The third, but most important, is visiting the cemetery.

The bread is baked into shapes of things found in nature - deer and rabbits and also saints and skulls. The bread is later distributed to visitors and also placed on the ofrendas.

The bread we baked. Black beans are used for the eyes.

My uncle shows off his deer prior to baking.

The ofrendas are like altars that are built in the home. They are decorated with colored paper, flowers, fruit and candles and sugar skulls. Then, favorite items of the deceased are placed there. Typical items are chocolate, Coca Cola and cigarettes. Personally, if I were packing supplies for the Underworld, I'd want Diet Peach Snapple, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish and some nice olives, maybe kalamata. But that's just me.

The ofrenda in my aunt and uncle's home.

The final step is the trip to the cemetery. What struck me the day of our visit to the cemetery was how colorful it all was but also how the ritual really kept alive the memory of those who passed. Each and every year, there is a ritualized reason to keep alive the memory of someone who may not be personally remembered by anyone still living, but whose life and history is maintained by the stories that are gathered and collected at this yearly ritual. Even those in graves with markings faded beyond legibility are remembered and celebrated.

At the cemetery

My mom, looking fab with flowers and Ray-Bans

My mom and my aunt in remembrance

I'm sprinkling holy water here.
You can always tell the Americans by their sunglasses.

Musicians are hired to serenade the deceased.

Day of the Dead is finding its way into US culture as well. There are annual observances at various sites in Los Angeles - some more traditional than others.

That is what the United States really is, isn't it? It's a blending of cultures, taking the best of others, mixing it up with what we think of as our own and making into a new reflection of us.

American Muertos

Spend a little time today thinking of those you've known who have gone before. Think of something about them that makes you laugh or smile. Maybe you can set out something that would please them: a bit of chocolate, a bottle of beer, a pinch of cat nip.

With each passing day, we are all closer to them than we like to think.

American Muertos is used with permission of the artist, Tony de Carlo. (See more of Tony's work at


Karen K. Kennedy said...

I loved learning more about the Day of the Dead and your family's traditions! And the photos. Really nice post!

NV said...

I've always wanted to be in Mexico to see this first-hand. Thanks for giving me the next best thing that even includes a very personal narrative from someone I enjoy reading anyway. :-)

And while I never thought about why, perhaps this explains why those I loved the most who have already moved on weighed so heavily on my mind yesterday ...

Jayne said...

I really enjoyed this post and learning more about the Day of the Dead. You're right--your mom does look fab! It's a wonderful tradition. Thank you for sharing your family's story.