Gone but not forgotten — celebrating El Día de Los Muertos

Altar prepared by the Casa de la Cultura, Toliman, Queretaro, Mexico, Nov. 1, 2002.

As a young person, I knew of the celebrations on November 2 for the Day of the Dead (El Día de Los Muertos) but it wasn’t until I moved to Phoenix that the celebrations came alive.

I view cemeteries as peaceful places — from a distance. For me, spending time in cemeteries is relegated to burials. I realize that people often go to leave flowers on the graves of loved ones on birthdays and other significant life events. I just could not envision many days of celebrations that included spending most of a day cleaning and decorating graves or spreading a blanket and having a picnic with headstones as a backdrop. I have to add, the skulls decorating altars in homes around Phoenix were more than just a little off-putting.

It was the altars, however, that fueled my curiosity. It wasn’t just the perfume of the marigolds, the distinctive fragrance of the incense, the traditional foods and religious items decorating the altars, it was how each family personalized them. Photos of their ancestors, loved ones and friends graced the altars — a tribute to the lives they led.  But it was more than tribute; it was connection.

This centuries-old Mexican celebration blending Aztec tradition and Catholic theology became a way of connection — bridging generations. This is a time when adult family members share stories of deceased loved ones with the young ones. It is a continuation of oral history thousands of years old. Through sharing serious and funny stories the “spirit” of the deceased remains alive in hearts. Humor is an important element of the celebration as portrayed in the colorfully decorated skull-like masks worn during the celebration. The ritual speaks death is not to be feared. This is a celebration of life, of transformation.

Communities throughout America and the world celebrate Day of the Dead. In Phoenix, many people take part in the celebration. In an article on azcentral.com, Carlos Miller of The Arizona Republic asked Mesa, Arizona, artist Zarco Guerrero about what has become a multicultural celebration. “Last year, we had Native Americans and African-Americans doing their own dances,” Guerrero said. “They all want the opportunity to honor their dead.”

How do you honor deceased loved ones? What story of a deceased love one would you like to share?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons by Steve Bridger.

View a celebration at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas.