I’ve always had a different approach to death. Even as a child it wasn’t something that scared me or even really caused much anxiety. Growing up a PK, or pastor’s kid, I had experienced death at a young age. I remember the first time I saw a corpse. It was a great uncle that had passed away, someone whom I really didn’t know all that well. At the end of the funeral, as the family passed by to look on the body one last time, my Dad picked me up and gently carried me towards the coffin. “Rebecca, you understand that this is just a body. Your Uncle Fred’s soul has gone on to be with Jesus and while we are sad and we’ll miss him, this body is just a shell and he is living in Heaven.” I don’t think my 6 year old mind truly comprehended what my Father was talking about. I remember feeling a little strange staring down at the body of my Uncle. This was just an introduction to death. Later, I would begin accompanying my Dad and Grandfather to the hospital to spend time with those dying. I was never frightened to hold their hands, tell little stories and even sing. This really shaped my little mind and death wasn’t feared. Maybe that’s why I appreciate the holiday Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.
Dia de los Muertos is celebrated throughout Mexico and Central America. Over 3000, years old, it couldn’t be stopped by the Catholic Church and eventually they embraced it as their own aligning it with All Saints Day. The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray and remember those who have died. They build ofrendas, or little alters, to the deceased. The celebration lasts two days, beginning with children building alters to children who have passed on. Then, on Nov. 2, family and friends gather in homes or cemeteries, They build the ofrendas, decorate graves and tombs, and share the deceased’s favorite food and drinks, often tamales. It’s a joyful, colorful remembrance that celebrates the loved ones. I think it’s beautiful. Calaveras, or sugar skulls, are eaten and often funny stories and antedotes about the deceased are shared. There is dancing and music and death is not feared. It reminds me a bit of my own heritage.
In New Orleans, death is also something centric to the culture. Jazz funerals wind their way down moss ladened oak tree lined streets. Songs like Nearer my God and Just a Closer Walk with Thee are played as families march from the church to the cemetery. It’s somber and sad until the “body is cut loose” and buried. As the family makes their way back home, the band begins to play upbeat music. The group of mourners who followed the band and family, the Second Line, breaks out into dance and celebration. Parasols are twirled and handkerchiefs waved as mourning turns into dancing. The dead is celebrated, remembered, and sent off with a party that is joyful. The tradition is thought to come from the Congo, brought by slaves to New Orleans. It’s so central to the culture in New Orleans that you often see Second Lines forming after parades, weddings or any eventful celebration.
Remembering our loved ones, however we choose to do so, honors their legacy and memory. While I don’t celebrate Dia de los Muertos, I’m going to pause a minute today to thank God for those who have gone on before me, for the influence they shared and the love I had for them. I’m thankful that I’ll see them again one day, that this life isn’t the end and like my Dad said to that little precocious 6 yr old girl, I will be celebrating with Jesus and my loved ones one day. Happy Dia de los Muertos!