El Dia de los Muertos

Beyond the veil that separates worlds, the cycle of life continues unseen. We call it Death. Nature’s version is more visible. Colored leaves fall and days shorten, heralding the resting time for plants and animals. We enter the “dark half” of the year on the cross-quarter passage of October 31/November 1, halfway between Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice. Ancient festivals whose traditions carry over to modern times honor this time, when the veil thins between the worlds of the living and the dead.

Spaniards who landed in Central America over 500 years ago discovered that Aztecs and other Meso-Americans practiced a ritual that seemed to mock death, and had been doing so for 3,000 years. Skulls displayed as trophies during the rituals symbolized death and rebirth.

Unlike the Spaniards, who viewed death as the end of life, the natives embraced it as the continuation of life. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they waken. The Spanish tried unsuccessfully to end the practice, and succeeded only in blending it with imported Catholic Christian traditions to produce the celebration we see today.

Death is present each day, whether we like to admit it or not. Rather than avoid it and hide grief as we’re trained in the United States, Hispanic cultures view it as part of the cycle of life. Yes there’s fear, but we can laugh at what we fear. Mock it.

As we deepen into the dark half of the year, there is rich opportunity to celebrate our departed friends and family – including animal companions who have died. Make room to welcome the spirits of the dead. Share your thoughts and prayers with them. It’s a good time to make amends.

Grieving those who have left us doesn’t have to mean wrapping ourselves in black and sitting in a darkened room. Mayan shaman Martin Prechtel teaches that when we grieve, we praise that this being lived. Our tears float the boat that carries the departed spirit into the afterlife. The only way to get rid of grief is to pass through it. If we don’t allow ourselves to grieve, we carry it around. That can get to be a heavy load.

Ritual is an important part of the grief process. It helps us express feelings for those who have died, and gives a concrete way to honor and remember them and the time our lives were joined. Celebrations of life are healing, as people share stories of good and not-so-good times. Rituals such as preparing a memorial service, with photos and mementoes that reflect a person’s life, help with the healing process.

El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) observances can stretch from All Saints and All Souls days (November 1 and 2) to a month-long festival. Preparations traditionally include making an altar dedicated to the departed, featuring a photo of the person or animal. Place offerings on your altar, such as pan de muertos (egg-rich bread of the dead), candles, yellow marigolds, personalized sugar skulls, or whatever is special to your remembrance.

You can make up your own ritual. It might be as simple as writing a letter, saying the things you wished you’d said before they died, giving thanks for the time you shared, and asking forgiveness for things you did that you’re sorry about. Then burn or bury the letter. Sit with your altar or a photo. Ask a question. Sometimes an answer will come as a knowing, or in a dream.

Your altar can be for a personal connection, such as a friend, relative or companion animal, or for a broader community such as people and animals killed by war, natural disasters, disease, neglect, or car accidents. Or for the Earth herself.

Other ways to honor this season of passage: Visit a cemetery, bring flowers and clean up a grave. Sit and talk to the person buried there. (Don’t worry about people thinking you’re crazy – you’re setting a good example.) Attend a Day of the Dead exhibit or festival in your community. Make a mask or art project dedicated to the person or animal whose spirit you’re honoring.

The important thing, whatever you choose to do, is to honor the deceased in a personally significant way. Own your grief. Accept that the cycle of life is a full circle, just as the sun rises and sets each day.

Sources:

Miller, Carlos (2005). “History: Indigenous people wouldn’t let ‘Day of the Dead’ die“. Day of the Dead — Día De Los Muertos (The Arizona Republic), http://www.azcentral.com/ent/dead/history/ .
Dia de los Muertos, http://www3.niu.edu/newsplace/nndia.html
Prechtel, Martin. www.floweringmountain.com

P.S. If you live where Halloween is celebrated, for your own peace of mind and your pet’s, please check the pet safety tips at:  http://vetmedicine.about.com/cs/winterinfo/a/halloweensafety.htm

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