For our religion classes this week, we gathered the middle school together for a discussion on Halloween, Dia de los Muertos, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day. Our primary source for discussion was a fourteen minute BBC video about the Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos; it was hosted by food writer Stefan Gates who travels around the world to participate in various festivals. In this segment, he traveled to Oaxaca to participate in the Day of the Dead. What he wasn’t expecting was a powerful urge to ponder death and, accordingly, become an emotional wreck when he placed two photos of dead loved ones on the ofrenda, a table containing flowers and photos as offerings to those who have died. Stefan fell apart as he remembered two people he had never even met – his wife’s mother, who died when his wife was just sixteen, and his biological grandfather who never knew Stefan’s grandmother was pregnant and thus never knew he was a grandpa.
After the stirring video, complete with beautiful scenes at a cemetery and a final
celebration in a home, we talked with the students about life and remembering
the dead. One student asked how one spells muerto (dead). In the handout, I had
misspelled it m-u-r-e-t-o. A simple switch of the “e” and “r” made my cozy
English tongue keep two vowels from each other. But that’s not how it’s spelled
in Spanish where the vowels “u” and “e” appear together.
Thanks in part to the video, I realized that our culture tends to keep death and life separated from each other, like the vowels in muerto, which may seem strange to English speakers. But this unique and important celebration puts life and death side by side. And that is a little uncomfortable for some, me included. Maybe Spanish speaking cultures are more comfortable with death.
Saint John’s School had our annual Dia de los Muertos celebration on Wednesday and a moving event it was. Unique liturgies tend to transcend language as the
experience unfolds. We had our own ofrenda which the students had prepared in
their art classes and is pictured between the two groups of preschoolers. There
were funny scenes of their deceased loved ones in small box displays,
traditional skulls, and other art. Hanging off each of the lights in the church
were additional pictures of loved ones along with messages written on bright
paper. The windows and doors were open so the breeze made the displays come to life as they twirled and swayed in the wind.
After the altar was set for Holy Communion, I explained to the students that on the last day of the traditional multi-day celebration, the family gathers at their
own ofrenda to say goodbye to their loved ones until next year when they will
do it all over again. They place the favorite foods of the deceased on the
table; before the family eats, they take smoke and cense the ofrenda and then
symbolically usher the dead outside their living quarters into the open air.
Once the smoke clears, the family takes part in the feast. I then used our
thurible to cense the ofrenda and ceremoniously usher the deceased out through
the side door to the columbarium. Finally, we celebrated Holy Communion and
after the service the students enjoyed hot chocolate and sweet bread as they
walked back to class.
Several parents in attendance were, like Stefan Gates, moved to tears during the
service. Many celebrated Dia de los Muertos in their homes when they were
young; for some this was the first time they had participated in it since
childhood. Some told me that despite their cultural upbringing, they had never
before fully understood the significance of the rituals they had practiced as
children which include laughter and tears, sorrow and joy, often playing out
next to each other.
In the Gospel lesson for today Jesus says: blessed are those who cry for they will
laugh, blessed are those who mourn for they will have joy, blessed are those
who are hungry for they will be filled. This celebration brings together
opposites – sadness and joy, the dead and the alive, the hungry and the
satisfied, and all with the hope of His promise that we will one day be
together in joy and light.
For as uncomfortable as it was for me to put a “u” and “e” together, it is now a
part of my vocabulary. As uncomfortable as I was at first with this
celebration, God put mourning and joy together for me. I have learned from our
Mexican brothers and sisters, I now feel comfortable with the spelling, and
more importantly, the celebration of Dia de los Muertos. And I am eager to
participating in this celebration again next year.