Grieving For Papa, Grieving With Others: My Día De Muertos Diary

When the author’s father died suddenly two years ago in Colombia, the Catholic Church mourning rituals offered little comfort. Two weeks ago, by chance in Mexico City for the annual Día De Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations, she finally discovered how these ancient celebratory rituals for the departed can help face the pain, and find true peace.


Mexico’s Día de Muertos, a “magical celebration of death”

By Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

In my native country of Colombia, when someone dies, the process of mourning is almost always turned over to the Catholic Church. It starts with the wake, set in aseptic shiny salons, surrounded by dozens of other identical rooms, each family has to welcome people who come to give their respects for days, amid religious symbols and white flower crowns. The lonely rituals are interrupted only by the occasional unrequested words of advice from friends or clergy about the right way to mourn.

For my first 22 years, I’d observed all of this with mild irritation from a distance at the few wakes and funerals I’d attended. Then, one Easter week, the family crying desperately in the center of the cold room was my own.


I lost my dad, who was a perfectly healthy recently retired physical education teacher, to a cardiorespiratory stroke while he was sleeping. He was just 65.

Overshadowed by religious rituals

My foggy memory from those horrid days included comments from supposed well-wishers like “Stop crying, God knows what he’s doing,” “It was God’s will” or “maybe God is trying to teach you something.” The misplaced advice made me feel isolated and lost. Since I was young, I had no longer considered myself a Catholic; but even more so I wanted desperately for my dad to be the center of his own funeral, and did what I could by placing photos over the cold brown coffin, playing his favorite songs while he was lowered in his grave, and sharing a song my brother and I wrote on his online memorial.

I never imagined grief could feel so lonely when you are a non-religious person in a Catholic country like Colombia. Even the flower crowns and visits from friends were overshadowed by the religious emphasis and obligations, such as praying nine nights in a row and repeatedly being encouraged to cross myself. They were demands of a religion I didn’t want to be part of, with the unspoken message that this was the only possible guidance on how to grieve for my dad.

Altars in Mexico City on Día de Muertos

A shot of memory, breaking grief taboo

Fast forward two and a half years to the final week of October 2021. I’d arrived in Mexico City for a Latin American journalism conference, and after landing realized my visit happened to coincide with Día de Muertos. These “Day of the Dead” festivities are celebrated between October 30 and November 2, in which Mexicans welcome with an altar their deceased loved ones whom they believe come to visit the living on these dates each year. In this festivity of Aztec origins, Catholic rituals of popular tradition intertwine, a smooth syncretizing of cultures and faiths.

Candles smoothly twinkled over a small table while yellow petals framed the photographs of loved ones.

I’d heard of Día de Muertos, and from a distance, it had seemed colorful and attractive, and the movie Coco had given a fascinating glimpse of how its fantastic visuals and music could create a magical celebration of death. Still, this was the first time I’d experienced it myself, and still facing the unresolved grieving for my father.

I arrived for the first Halloween parties, just a few days before Día de Muertos. Between Tamarindo Smirnoff’s sweetly-spicy burning flavor, young Mexicans started telling the stories of their deceased in front of the host’s altar. Candles smoothly twinkled over a small table while yellow petals framed the photographs of loved ones. A small cross above and a tequila bottle, of the favorite brand of the deceased, lay on the table. One by one, the friends each shared memories of a relative they’d lost including a high school friend that had died in a car accident.

The combination of joy and death had always seemed so alien to me, yet at that party I felt it for the very first time. Mexican journalist and friend Paul Antoine Matos gave me his first book, Embellecedores de Huesos (“Beautifiers of Bones”) in which he narrates the unique custom of Pomuch town citizens of cleaning their deceased bones year by year to somehow bring them back. One of the locals of Pomuch said to him “The environment during these days is festive and joyful, because you feel that your family is by your side.” I felt the warm and slightly overwhelming reality of being part of a huge group of people all grieving someone at the same time. It is an intense throat-tightening cocktail of emotions that I can only describe as a national hug.

It was so far from the awkward silences I knew back at home when someone asked about my parents, and I had to answer that my papa passed away. Far from the heavy religious judgment when people assumed I was angry at God because my dad had died. Here I was listening to people my age remembering and honoring the memory of those they lost while having some shots to definitively break the taboos I’d been surrounded by since losing my father.

A city of grief, joy, memory and resistance

The tall buildings and old houses of the busy metropolis of Mexico City during this time of the year are colored yellow and lilac. The orange-toned flower represents life and the sun, and the purple refers to loss and mourning. Both are Cempasúchil, the flower of the dead according to the Aztecs, as it’s thought that its petals are able to keep the heat of the sun and shelter the dead while their aroma guides their soul’s return.

The altars are everywhere, from museums to bars. One of the first ones I saw was in The Museum of Memory and Tolerance, where the message “phobias that kill, the colors of grief” was displayed by the Pride flag. Then I visited the massive altar in the center of Coyoacán in which, under the big bell of the central plaza, candles, skulls, flowers and photographs shared the space with messages for femicide victims “not even one more killed,” for migrants “for all those that died trying to cross our borders” and for journalists “for the journalists that have died reporting.”

My mind was transported to my homeland, 1,900 miles to the south. I cried, sheltered by the loud masses and the dim lights of the altar. Colombia, a country where defending human rights represents a mortal danger and more than 1,200 social activists have been killed after believing in a badly implemented peace treaty in 2016. Mexico has its own plagues, like currently being the country where more journalists are killed in the world. Though not for a direct loved one, my grief was irrepressible.

Catrinas” participate in a silent procession in memory of the victims of femicide, on the Día de Muertos in Saltillo, Mexico. 02 November 2021.

Mexico and Colombia, a shared history

Mexico and Colombia share a history of colonization, massacres and social mobilization. Two countries that lead the rates of environmental and human rights defenders killings. Two countries where gender-based violence is a pandemic. In Colombia, in 2019, every day 95 girls denounced sexual violence. In Mexico from January to May 2021, there have been 423 femicides. I cried for them, I cried from a deeply engrained grief I knew I had but never before came pouring out. A peacefulness and solemnity I didn’t know could come with grief.

I was transported to 2016 when I marched for peace in Colombia with my dad. We all had so much hope in the treaties that were being negotiated. We all deserved a different country. My dad taught me to doubt politicians, to truly care about the well-being of others, to give generously, and listen patiently, even if the world is not always kind in return. I remember the Club Colombia beer he drink with lunch and the way he silently cried sometimes when music invaded him, regardless of the genre. He was a sensitive and curious soul. In love with this world and always teaching me about it. I wish we had walked between the trees of Mexico City together. I wish I didn’t have to write this piece.

I dried my tears and kept exploring the packed streets of Frida Kahlo’s neighborhood, slightly terrified by the people with Pennywise and Chucky costumes. It was fascinating to see Mexicans and tourists of all ages impersonating superheroes, witches and catrinas. The omnipresent skeleton representation of a woman is the death that comes to visit. It is a symbol with origins in a reinterpretation of the Aztecs Goddess of death by José Guadalupe Posada, who wanted to communicate with the satirical attire that no matter how rich or poor you are, we will all end up as skeletons.

Gratitude and sharing

Ecuadorian, Guatemalan and Colombian journalists, as well as other Latinxs, we all felt so lucky to have experienced a conference in Mexico city on these particular dates. We even participated in the rituals that showcased the exceptional relationship that Mexicans have with death. On our last day together, one of the Mexican delegates at the conference offered to share his altar with those of us who had lost someone.

During the conference, we got the news a dear journalist for all of us had suddenly lost her boyfriend. She was not able to travel to Mexico, but we all felt her close to our hearts. Even if she was back in Venezuela, we put her boyfriend’s photo on the altar. It shared the place of honor with a picture of my dad, who died two-and-a-half years ago; with the photo of my Ecuadorian friend’s mama, who left nine years ago, with the drawings of my Colombian friend’s papa and best friend, each departed just a few months ago.

In the land of death and the Día de Muertos celebration, there is no place for hierarchies or differences in the right to grieve depending on how old or recent your loss is. In Colombia, the masses to commemorate my papa’s death become less frequent with time, and the only thing mentioned now is his name.

The possibility to return to the world of the living, to reunite with our people, to resurrect…

That 30th of October on a white Altar with a few candles, our missed ones shared a mezcal bottle and the Yucatan region Pibipollo, tamale-like chicken pastry, cooked in a hole under the earth, “a metaphor of burial” as my friend Matos described it. Mexico was hosting our Latin American ancestors for a feast on a celebration where the bridge stands between life and death, a bridge called remembrance, as the song in Coco successfully imprinted on us.

Hugging, and letting out tears of happy nostalgia, we remembered their favorite songs, their happiest moments, their favorite outfits and even their very human defects. We felt embraced both by them and by each other. Mexico was giving me a sense of collective grief and accompaniment I never imagined possible. Mexico was healing a part of my heart that was angry at the world for not listening to my desperate scream for community and empathy. Grief acquired a surprising new taste of gratitude.

“It is a beautiful gesture of gratitude that the Mexicans have towards those who have gone before us. From them, we inherit the land, culture, education and life” fellow Colombian Julián de Zubiría Samper wrote in a recent article in El Espectador about Día de Muertos. “What this millenary custom shows us is that we have to thank those who gave us life and speak again with those who left sooner than expected.”

Connection beyond religion

I remember one of my worst memories of grieving back at home when a priest gave a eulogy centered on my father’s duty to repent and accompany a God he didn’t really adore. Now, instead, this ancient Mexican rite was giving my dad a singular place of importance, not that of a priest’s pawn or a subject of God.

“The Day of the Dead is the possibility that we all have to return to the world of the living, to reunite with our people, to resurrect,” Matos wrote in his recent book. Despite being a Catholic country as well, the eclecticism of its beautiful syncretic traditions rooted in precolonial cosmovisions was allowing my dad to come back for something like a real-life chat with me as we shared a few Mezcales and a shot of tequila (though I know he’d prefer a beer!).

I don’t know if something inside has healed permanently or if it was more like a breath of fresh air before going back to feeling the same isolation when I return to Bogotà. What I do have now is a place where I can sit once a year and feel closer to the signs Papa keeps sending me. I’m not sure in which city, but from now on my dad will always have an altar he can come to visit. Who knows, we might get to share his favorite Colombian beer next time.

Complete Article HERE!

Everything Dies

It’s the Buddha’s basic teaching. It’s life’s universal truth. It’s what we most want to deny. Sallie Jiko Tisdale on how this hard but liberating truth can transform your life.

Death and Life” by Gustav Klimt.

by

Most Buddhists put flowers on the altar. We know flowers are beautiful, but that isn’t their purpose here. Flowers begin to die as soon we cut them; we carefully lay death in the place that symbolizes our awakening. We bow and make offering to this crucial truth, built into the bones of the world.

The Buddha spoke volumes of words, an immense canon, but most of what he said comes down to this: Things change. Change cannot be avoided. Change hurts. The fundamental teaching of all Buddhism can be stated as everything dies. The Buddha taught this, it fills the sutras, it is repeated by our teachers. But most of all, we learn this from our own daily lives.

Do we believe that we will dissolve? No. Not deep down in the root of the small self, because the small self plans to live forever.

You have probably learned a traditional formula or two for this insistent teaching about the transitory nature of all things:

Anicca vata sankhara: “Impermanent, alas, are all formations!”

Sabbe saokhara anicca: “All conditioned factors of existence are transitory.”

In the Maha Satipatthana Sutta: “[One] abides observing the phenomenon of arising…abides observing the phenomenon of passing away…”

As a new practitioner, I learned the catechism this way: “All compounded things are subject to dissolution.” The language was strange when I first heard it, and as a young practitioner I found myself parsing the words: Compounded. Dissolution. Notice, I was told, how everything is put together from other things and will be taken apart. I began to notice. A table, a house, a nation—I could see this.

But if all things are compounded and will dissolve, then I am compounded and I will dissolve. And this was not something I could easily accept.

I pretend to accept my own death. Most senior practitioners do; many of them may even believe they accept it. Buddhists have their own peculiar points of pride, outside the usual stream of things we pride ourselves on, like humility and asceticism. Plenty of us are proud of our equanimity in the face of extinction, at least until we see the headlights bearing down.

So how deep does this acceptance really go? It’s not just Buddhists who kid themselves about being prepared for death. It’s people. It’s all of us who don’t want to admit that we are organisms fighting for life, that we can sagely repeat, “Annica, annica, all compounded things are subject to dissolution,” without really confronting what it means.

Do we believe that we will dissolve? No. Not deep down in the root of the small self, because the small self plans to live forever. When we say that “Everything dies,” we mean everything dies but me. And we can get kind of fancy about this point: Everything dies, including my body (but not my awareness—not me). Everything is subject to dissolution, but something passes through to a new form and doesn’t ever go away (that’s me). In a thousand ways, most of them not entirely conscious, we hold on to the hope that something of this self, somehow, will remain, and we hold on to that even as everything we touch slides away like sand in running water.

Why should we pretend to more confidence than we feel? Everyone is a beginner when it comes to death. We can’t practice it. When my mother died, it was the very first time that my mother died, and I didn’t know how to do that, to be a daughter whose mother was dying, to be a daughter whose mother had ceased to exist. When my best friend died—when my teacher died—I didn’t know how to do it. Each death I’ve known has been the very first one of its kind. Even with experience—I know how grieving feels, I know the altered state of a vigil, I know a lot about that—I can’t entirely prepare. And when I die, it will be the first time this particular me dies, and I will be a beginner.

Yes, I know that we are all dying all the time. That’s what it means to be a compounded thing dissolving—this self, this moment, gives way to the next as the girl gives way to the woman who gives way to the crone. I know that the me of today is not the me of yesterday, and I was also taught that if you die once, you never need to die again. But the real teaching of that formula, the falling away of body and mind for a ceaseless moment, is that you are already dead. I know this, but I don’t think my body does.

Slay the demons of hope and fear. My teacher would say this to me at a time when I was knocking up against deepening anxiety. My stubborn refusal to submit to the meaning of that anxiety made me more anxious still. The stronger I resisted, the deeper my anxiety became, until I sank well into true fear. How could I slay that demon when I was afraid to walk out the door?

We need to talk about death bluntly, honestly, and often.

“Vanitas Life, Death, and Resurrection by Ezio Gutzemberg.

The original Pali word for aversion, dosa, is various and shaded. It can be translated as anger or hatred, denial, projection, distortion, aggression, repulsion, even disgust. That is how it can feel to talk about death, about our own death. But I want you to think about it and I want you to talk about it. Even if you have considered your own death deeply, how often do you talk about it? Do you talk about your private conflicts or confusion, your questions, your plans?

How do we begin? Begin with the fear. Begin with the resistance. We know the question. It is why we begin to practice in the first place: Why do we suffer? And we know the answer. It is why we keep practicing: We suffer because of change and resistance to change.

But knowing the answer does not stop the question from being asked, and knowing an answer today doesn’t mean we will remember the answer tomorrow. Ignorance is the first link in the twelve-fold chain of causation—ignorance of impermanence, of anicca, of anatta, of no-self. This chain feeds itself endlessly—our ignorance of the ephemeral nature of the self building a self over and over. The chain is broken only by the transformation of that first mistake, being ignorant about the compounded nature of the self, which is not separate or bounded at all.

What do you fear about death? Make a list. Be honest. Autopsy? Being alone? Pain? Loss of privacy? Do you fear soiling your bed? Do you fear needles? For what do you hope? Make a list. Be honest. Do you want to see it coming? Do you want to be asleep? Do you want to be very old?

Ask the question again. Why am I afraid? Because I will die. What does that mean? (Wait a minute. Will I die? Do I have to die?) Ask yourself: Are you ready to die? Don’t answer too quickly, because that last one is a doozy. Even people who have made great strides in accepting the fact of their own inevitable dissolution will be flooded with adrenaline when the headlights bear down. The body has its own hopes.

Talk about death. Talk about everything. Imagine it. Write a description of the scene of your death. Where are you? What do you see? What do you smell, taste, touch? Who is there? Are you inside or outside? Is it warm or cool? Is there music, or words?

Imagine it. Write it down. Then tell everyone who needs to know—your family and friends and teacher and doctor—what you want. Make a record of your wishes and don’t forget to decide how your body should be handled after you’re done with it. Make copies and pass them out.

Then tear it up. Let it go with all your heart. This will be the work of the rest of your life.

We can do all this. We can make a plan, buy a plot, fill out the advance directive, decide what music we want to hear as we go. But we can’t plan not to die. The essence of dying is the loss of control. This is the hardest part for many of us—not that death will happen, but that it will happen without our hand on the controls. It will happen as it happens, when it happens, where it happens, and chances are it won’t go according to plan. The only thing we can control, and only with practice, is how we face whatever happens.

These days it is common to talk about a “good death.” (There are many official, even government-issued, definitions of a good death.) A good death is usually defined as one where a person is comfortable and at peace.

For myself, I want to think about a right death, a death that fits the life I’m trying to live. Most deaths include what anyone might call good moments and bad moments, desired and undesired consequences. So it is with our lives, and so it is with death. Right deaths are all different; you can’t define the details. For me, it means a death unhidden—from me and from those who love me. It means a death met with grace and willingness when the time comes. Achieving this will be the work of the rest of my life.

If we can face it, recognizing the reality of death will transform our lives.
Flowers are beautiful because they are brief. Beauty is a measure of fragility and brevity and transformation, created in part by our awareness of the precious value of this moment—this moment is what we love. Death is utterly natural, shared by all; it is also heartbreaking. That equation isn’t dissonant; it’s the nature of love. With our eyes open to change, each thing we meet is luminous and sparkling. To love means to lose. To lose means to love. The last breath allows us to cherish another without reservation, holding nothing back.

Slay the demons, my teacher told me. That meant accepting my anxiety, my fear. It meant coming to see that hope and fear are one thing: fantasies of the unborn future. Hope pulls and fear pushes and together they keep us stuck in what has not happened, living a half-life of imaginary events. I exhausted myself on that mountain, until I gave up. Giving up was the key. Accepting the demons of hope and fear until they slew me, which was what my teacher had been saying all along.

The parable of the burning house told in the Lotus Sutra is a familiar one. The children do not know the house is on fire, so they won’t leave until their father tempts them with carts full of treasure. So we are with our own suffering, our ignorance. The Buddha offers us treasures, including one so great we couldn’t even imagine it.

Some years ago, I had a brief, vivid dream. I saw a room completely engulfed in flames, and several people were walking calmly through the room, smiling. One turned and looked at me and said, “I can’t tell you how safe I feel in this house.”

When I begin to truly accept myself as this compounded thing—a dewdrop, a bubble, a cloud—when I really believe for a moment that my precious me is a passing sigh in the oceanic cosmos of change, then I begin to find safety inside the burning house. I don’t need to escape if I know how to live inside it. Not needing to escape, I no longer need rewards. I just walk through it, aware of dissolving.

Complete Article HERE!

The mourner’s Kaddish

— A prayer for the living

By Moshe Meirovich

In the words of Ben Sira, the second century B.C.E. Jewish apocryphal sage: “We are all destined to die. We share it with all who have ever lived and all who will ever be.”

This is a fact of life. Yet, with each death we enter a mourning period that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (1926-2004) has so eloquently described as five stages of grief:

  • Denial;
  • Anger;
  • Bargaining;
  • Depression;
  • Acceptance.

Likewise, rabbinic scholars centuries ago comprehended the need to ‘concretize the abstract’ by embracing the grieving process even while standing at the grave of a loved one.

At the very moment when the heart is broken, Judaism mandates the public recitation of the Kaddish prayer thereby aiding the mourner to begin to move beyond denial by confronting death head-on.

The Kaddish, at this time of emotional upheaval, ever so slowly addresses the grieving process by encouraging the mourner to begin to accept a new reality with the ubiquitous reminder: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and helps those who are crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:19)

In the ancient Aramaic prayer, the Kaddish asserts: “Yitgadal V’yitkadash Shmei Rabbah.” Magnified and sanctified be the great name of God throughout the world created according to the divine will.

These words underscore the words of the prophet Isaiah: “For My plans are not your plans, nor are My ways your ways declares the Lord. But, as the heavens are high above the earth, so are My ways high above your ways and My plans above your plans.” (Isaiah 55: 8-9)

Poignantly, the psalmist reminds us that even though we may not comprehend God’s inscrutable will, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no harm for Thou art with me.” (Psalm 23:4)

Hence, with the recitation of the Kaddish, the mourner publicly declares there is indeed hope and redemption beyond this moment of unbearable pain. Step by step, the Kaddish provides the mourner with a ritual to traverse the stages of grief that will surely follow while embraced by a community of family and friends who provide comfort in the house of Shiva (seven days) where Kaddish will be recited, thereby sustaining the mourners in their quest for healing.

Moreover, in the words of an anonymous author, we discover an additional purpose in reciting Kaddish: “… if there is one thing I beg you to take to heart, it is this: Say Kaddish after me, but not for me. Kaddish is the unique Jewish link that binds the generations of Israel. The grave hears not the Kaddish, but the speaker does, and the words will echo in your heart …” (“Jewish Reflections on Death” by Rabbi Jack Riemer)

Thus, the Kaddish not only connects one generation to another; it also ‘jump-starts’ the grieving process in the midst of a caring and loving community, so that the mourner can again begin to experience a measure of hope, even in moments of despair.

Complete Article HERE!

The Dancing Skeletons

By John Harvey Negru

One of the more enchanting costumed Tibetan Buddhist dances involves a couple of jovial skeletons (citipati) who perform a jig that is, to me, vaguely reminiscent of Abbot and Costello in a vaudeville routine. Their grins are ear-to-ear, one holds a skull cup full of blood and the other holds a wand comprising a child’s spine and skull. Charming.

There are many images of these two clowns; it’s not a particularly obscure bit of tantric exotica. They’re just part of the entourage. They come on between the multi-octave throat singers and the more elaborately gowned Black Hat re-enactment or Yamantaka dance.

Clearly this is not an image of death that was part of the zeitgeist when and where I grew up as a nice Jewish boy, down the street from Leonard Cohen in Westmount, the English enclave in Montreal, Québec, a Canadian province still in the fading grip of the Catholic Church after the Quiet Revolution.

And yet, as I and my generation have grown older and older, we find ourselves with a ticket to the Greatest Show on Earth: our demise, like it or not. Leonard has already made his own curtain call.

These days, we have a cornucopia of narratives about how our end of life will go. And as you can imagine, each of us is pretty darn committed to finding the one that will bring the greatest peace of mind and no regrets.

As we have learned over the past year and a half, dying is a much more difficult passage than being dead. Tragically, many of us have found ourselves unprepared to deal with the passing of a loved one or recognizing that we ourselves are leaving lots of loose ends for those we love.

Linda Hochstetler. Photo by Kristina Ruddick. Image courtesy of the author
Linda Hochstetler.

The end of life is not something folks like to talk about, but it is our ultimate mystery. On another plane, it is also a tricky logistical path across a gameboard, with pitfalls such as dealing with hospital bureaucracy, filling in forms, searching for hospice care, making advanced care plans, and so much more.

I know several Canadian Buddhists who have served as death doulas. A few months ago, I was approached by a Buddhist social worker from Toronto, Linda Hochstetler, who has specialized in death work for many years in a variety of capacities. She explained that she had written an end-of-life guide and asked if I would be interested in publishing it. The short answer was yes and the book will be out this autumn.

It seemed worth interviewing her because I wanted to learn more about her perspective on the end of life, and to explore some of the themes she raises in her book but which were subsumed to the need to keep it practical for its intended Canadian audience. Here is a portion of our conversation.

Buddhistdoor Global: When we talk about death and dying, reversing the order of things, we make death the focus of our attention at the expense of understanding and working with the process of dying. In the best of all possible worlds, how would you change that?

Linda Hochstetler: I would spend much more time teaching about the dying process. Everyone should know the death process intimately before they graduate high school. The dying process is not really understood or taught anywhere. Not to adults and certainly not to kids. I would love it to be a part of school curricula. It’s too often avoided at all ages. Switching the order within the phrase dying and death allows us to really look at dying up close and to spend much more time and interest here, understanding this before we try to move on to death.

BDG: The pandemic has transformed our awareness of the fragility of life, our interbeing, and our relationships with old and young. In offering spiritual care to frontline healthcare workers, what do you see and how do you respond?

LH: Frontline healthcare workers are called to do their work because it matters to them. They want to be a part of a system that they approve of and where they feel they can make a difference. The pandemic has been challenging because many of the policies in healthcare were not in line with healthcare workers’ priorities. Healthcare workers were asked to work without PPE initially, and there were often staff shortages when staff were sick themselves or just stressed out. These situations were unfortunate because they pitted the workers against families, and even when the healthcare workers wanted to work together with families to provide good care to sick family members, they were unable to do so. We have been hearing that we’re all in the pandemic together, but too often our needs have been competing and we have not been able to work together well. Under these conditions, spiritual support is often considered to be superfluous and the easiest part to cut out. This is unfortunate, because it is our spirituality that is the core of our common humanity.

BDG: What is “a good death” and is this a goal we need to strive toward?

LH: A good death will differ for everyone. It is one that is in line with one’s values. It is also one that is the best in those circumstances from the options available. It is helpful to aim for a good death but not to cling too tightly to the idea, because sometimes things come up that are a surprise. It’s easier to say what is not a good death than what is a good death. What is not a good death is hanging on and slowing down death with the idea that it can be prevented. Attached to this is the idea that resisting death increases interventions at the end. Interventions create activity and distraction from the dying process, and often require professionals and hospital rules to take precedence over the dying process, which belongs to the dying person and their loved ones.

BDG: How is death work different from grief work?

LH: Death work is the honest seeing of the process of dying. It is witnessing the changes in the body, understanding how this affects the mind and ultimately our conversations and interactions with those remaining. Grief work is both the work of the dying person, who is letting go of this lifetime, and the work of the loved ones, who are releasing the dying person, and imaging a life without their loved one even while they are still alive. Very basically, death work has a greater focus on the body, while grief work has a greater focus on the mind and feelings. And both can happen both before and after the final breath.

BDG: The use of self is one of the benchmarks by which neophyte chaplains are evaluated in their CPE training. Yet the role of a spiritual caregiver demands the abandonment of self for the benefit of the patient or client. Since Buddhism negates the idea of a self, is there some special advantage a Buddhist approach can offer here?

LH: The use of self in a therapeutic sense begins with an awareness of self and an awareness of other. Buddhism negates the idea of a self—not in the sense that it doesn’t exist but that it is not inherently different from the other. Awareness training helps to hold this seeming dichotomy together. In this way, a Buddhist chaplain has the experience and training to see the patient or client as themselves and can more easily offer help from this perspective. They can go between their needs and their client’s needs seamlessly without needing to drop either side. Buddhist chaplains are way more comfortable with “both/and” situations.

BDG: When a loved one is dying, it is often the nexus for family conflict that can leave lasting scars. Of course, preventing such conflict is important, but when it has been unavoidable, what is the best way to repair the damage?

LH: Preventing family conflict around the death bed is so much easier than repairing it afterwards, so whenever possible, resources and time should be spent here. Making room for all loved ones to share in the dying process is best, even if that means making a schedule and taking turns in the care. However, when damage has occurred, it is best to find a neutral person—a chaplain or social worker—to speak with all sides individually and invite them to consider the wishes of the dying person. The dying person’s wishes should be of greatest importance, and ideally this priority can guide the overall decision-making.

BDG: How do Western Buddhist views of dying and death differ from those of Asian Buddhists? How are they the same?

LH: Buddhism is always a combined product of the scriptures/teaching and the local culture. As such, it is often hard to know what is influenced by Buddhism and what is influenced by culture. In many ways, there are fewer differences between Western and Asian Buddhists, and more differences between traditional Buddhist interpretations and modern options. For example, 50 years ago if someone was close to dying, they would be doing so at home and tended by family members into a natural death. Today, modern medicine presents many options for extending life and often these extensions are what is considered controversial. These options, which involve feeding and breathing tubes, are offered around the world. Taking someone off of life support, medical assistance in dying, or organ donations are all options that have come up in the last 50 years and were not even imaginable in the Buddhist scriptures or teaching, so much must be extrapolated from the culture on the rightness and wrongness of these choices. I think Western Buddhists and Asian Buddhists have much more in common than is often assumed and would do well to look at their similarities rather than their differences.

BDG: Briefly, what is the difference between palliative and hospice care, from a Buddhist perspective?

LH: There is no difference between palliative care and hospice care from a Buddhist perspective. In actuality, palliative care can involve a greater resistance when it includes death hidden from the community, but this doesn’t have to be so. Hospice care often occurs in locations—home or residential hospice—that allow for fewer rules regarding spiritual practices, but this is not inherently so.

BDG: What is the difference between spiritual care and psycho-spiritual therapy?

LH: Spiritual care emphasizes both the individual and the community aspect of spiritual practice. This might include formal practices such as prayer and chanting, with the support of spiritual leaders or lay chaplains or sangha members. Psycho-spiritual therapy often involves a relationship that works on individual ego work, often throughout one’s life. It includes explorations of where spiritual practices and aspirations fit into an individual’s life. Ideally, therapy is done long before the dying process so as to clear away energy for dying without also having the weight of previous relationships unresolved.

BDG: Is it possible to celebrate dying?

LH: Absolutely. Just like there are many challenges in one’s life, dying is a final one. Celebration comes from training for death and then completing it according to the training. As with many challenges, the focus doesn’t have to be on the exact result, but more in the effort in a particular direction. And the celebration of dying includes the celebration of living. Look at the whole life and see that dying is one more step of the life, and celebrate when it all hangs together consistently and as a whole.

Complete Article HERE!

Liberal Judaism, Modern Church join new Religious Alliance for Dignity in Dying

  • New group of interfaith leaders and laypeople following more than a dozen denominations call for change in law on assisted dying
  • Poll finds 53% people of faith felt religious leaders were wrong to campaign against last assisted dying bill, while just 22% felt it was right
  • Christian man who accompanied wife to Dignitas welcomes new Alliance

Liberal Judaism, a progressive strand of Judaism, and the Modern Church, an Anglican society promoting liberal Christian theology, are the latest faith organisations to join the new Religious Alliance for Dignity in Dying, a collection of multi-faith groups, leaders and laypeople calling for a change in the law on assisted dying. Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has also joined the Alliance and the Chief Officer of the Unitarians has recognised the strong support among many of their members. The Alliance is also welcomed by a Christian man who accompanied his terminally ill wife to Dignitas in 2019 at her request.

The Religious Alliance for Dignity in Dying is formed of religious organisations, leaders and people who follow more than a dozen different denominations and who support a change in the law to enable terminally ill people the ability to determine how, when and where they die alongside high quality end of life care. This comes as a private member’s bill on assisted dying was introduced to the House of Lords last month by Baroness Meacher, Chair of Dignity in Dying, paving the way for the first debate on prospective legislation in Parliament for more than five years.

In a YouGov poll of 5,039 adults published yesterday, 53% of religious people felt it was wrong for religious leaders to actively campaign against an assisted dying bill that was debated in the House of Commons in 2015, with just 22% saying they felt it was right for them to do so.

Faith leaders including the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of Westminster wrote to MPs in September 2015 to urge them to oppose the Second Reading of the assisted dying bill in the House of Commons. The bill was based on one introduced by Lord Falconer in 2014, which was supported by Peers both at Second Reading and at Committee Stage, where two opposition amendments were defeated by large margins. Unfortunately, the parliamentary session ended before it could progress further. Baroness Meacher’s bill, also based on Lord Falconer’s bill, was drawn seventh in the House of Lords private members’ ballot last month and a Second Reading is expected in the autumn.

A 2019 Populus poll found that approximately 80% of religious people (and 84% of the general public) support the change proposed in Baroness Meacher’s bill – namely that terminally ill, mentally competent adults in their final months would be able to request an assisted death, subject to approval from two independent doctors and a High Court judge.

Similar legislation has been in place in Oregon, USA for over 23 years, and has since been adopted by nine other American states plus the District of Columbia, three Australian states and New Zealand.

The Religious Alliance for Dignity in Dying brings together followers of the Church of England, Church of Scotland, Church of Wales, Catholicism, Baptism, Evangelism, Methodism, Unitarianism, United Reformed Church, Quakerism, Liberal Judaism, Reform Judaism and Sunni Islam.

Rabbi Charley Baginsky, Chief Executive of Liberal Judaism, said: “Liberal Judaism has a proud history of being at the forefront of progressive societal change, speaking up for much-needed liberal reforms with compassion at their heart. Much like votes for women or equal marriage – rights which now seem unchallengeable – assisted dying is a right we are proud to champion for people nearing the end of their life.”

Rabbi Danny Rich, Liberal Judaism rabbi with responsibility for hospital and prison chaplaincy and former Chief Executive of Liberal Judaism, said: “I have long been an advocate of the right of terminally ill individuals, subject to appropriate safeguards, to decide the manner and timing of their own deaths. Twenty-seven years ago my own great uncle, suffering with inoperable cancer, ended his own life with help from a relative. That dying people are still forced to contemplate dying by suicide as an alternative to a traumatic or prolonged death by their disease is shameful. I add my voice to the growing number calling for true choice and control at the end of life.”

Alan Race, Chair of the Modern Church, said: “Christians place high value on human dignity and compassion and believe we should relieve suffering where possible. We welcome medical intervention in order to relieve pain, especially when suffering becomes unbearable. Relationship with God is a freely chosen commitment and this means that we do not leave it to God to determine the time of death. Trusting in God’s unlimited compassion therefore includes the desire to relieve unbearable suffering at the end of life. In practical terms, granting permission for assisted dying often has the effect of releasing renewed spirituality for living a more fulfilled life prior to death itself.” 

Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, said: “For too long we have turned a blind eye to the suffering inflicted on terminally ill people by the ban on assisted dying. Compassion, a central tenet of the Christian faith, should not be a crime, and yet under the current law it is treated as such. I believe a change to the law is urgently needed to enable our dying citizens the ability to go as they wish. To my mind, this is the moral, and the Christian, thing to do.”

Liz Slade, Chief Officer of the Unitarians, said: “The Unitarian movement voted in 2013 on the issue of assisted dying; in our recognition of the worth the dignity of all people and their freedom to believe as their consciences dictate, members voted to support the principle that individuals should have the right to seek support for assisted dying in certain circumstances, and that legislation should respect this choice and allow them compassionate assistance without fear of prosecution of anyone involved. Many Unitarians are passionately in favour of a change in the law, while recognising the need to allow a diversity of voices to be considered on this important moral issue.”

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, Chair of the Religious Alliance for Dignity in Dying, said: “This new Alliance is a truly multi-faith rallying call for a compassionate, safeguarded law on assisted dying for the UK.

“In the 60 years since the blanket ban has been in place, medical advances have done wonders in prolonging life, but this often means prolonging the dying process too, causing suffering that may be beyond the reach of palliative care. Religious teaching evolves to deal with the challenges of modern life, so too should the options we offer people when they reach the end of it. That we continue to deny our dying citizens a choice that is now available in states and nations around the world is morally indefensible. It’s time to have a national debate on assisted dying that respects all views while recognising the strong support among religious people.”

Len Taphouse, 81, a former lecturer in engineering and father of three from Hornchurch, is a member of the Church of England and welcomes the new Religious Alliance for Dignity in Dying. Len accompanied his wife of 55 years, Stella, to die at Dignitas in Switzerland at her request in August 2019. Stella was terminally ill with Parkinson’s disease and breast cancer, and in previous years had been diagnosed with cancer of the womb and skin.

Len said: “I was brought up as a regular church-goer, and in 2014 Stella and I renewed our vows 50 years later in the very same church we got married in. Neither of us found our faith a barrier to supporting Stella’s decision, quite the opposite. But this option should have been available here at home. Stella should not have had to spend £11,000 and my daughters and I should not have had to break the law and risk prosecution to accompany her in her final moments. It’s time the law was changed so that people like Stella can die as they wish in this country, surrounded by those they love, in their own bed.”

Tom Davies, Director of Campaigns and Communications at Dignity in Dying, said: “Medical organisations are increasingly recognising the range of views among their members, with doctors accepting that whatever their personal opinion they cannot deny their dying patients the choices they want. Religious organisations and faith leaders are now doing the same, recognising the support for change among their congregations and putting the choice and autonomy of those at the end of life before doctrine.

“With an assisted dying bill in the House of Lords, the Health Secretary commissioning data on suicides by terminally ill people, Scotland due to consult on potential legislation and Jersey conducting a citizen’s jury on the subject, it is essential that parliamentarians across the British Isles understand that the vast majority of the pubic, with faith and without, want change.”

Complete Article HERE!

Of Death and Consequences

Religious Muslims in many nations are finding their sacred rituals of mourning disrupted.

The historian Leor Halevi.

By George Yancy

This month’s conversation in our series on how various religious traditions deal with death is with Leor Halevi, a historian of Islam, and a professor of history and law at Vanderbilt University. His work explores the interrelationship between religious laws and social practices in both medieval and modern contexts. His books include “Muhammad’s Grave: Death Rites and the Making of Islamic Society” and “Modern Things on Trial: Islam’s Global and Material Reformation in the Age of Rida, 1865-1935.” This interview was conducted by email and edited. The previous interviews in this series can be found here.

— George Yancy

George Yancy: Before we get into the core of our discussion on death in the Islamic faith, would you explain some of the differences between Islam and the other two Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Judaism?

Leor Halevi: Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam is a religion that has been fundamentally concerned with divine justice, human salvation and the end of time. It is centered around the belief that there is but one god, Allah, who is considered the eternal creator of the universe and the omnipotent force behind human history from the creation of the first man to the final day. Allah communicated with a long line of prophets, beginning with Adam and ending with Muhammad. His revelations to the last prophet were collected in the Quran, which presents itself as confirming the Torah and the Gospels. It is not surprising, therefore, that there are many similarities between the scriptures of these three religions.

There are also intriguing differences. Abraham, the father of Ishmael, is revered as a patriarch, prophet and traveler in Islam, Christianity and Judaism. But only in the Quran does he appear as the recipient of scrolls that revealed the rewards of the afterlife. And only in the Quran does he travel all the way to Mecca, where he raises the foundations of God’s house.

As for Jesus, the Quran calls him the son of Mary and venerates him as the messiah, but firmly denies his divinity and challenges the belief that he died on the cross. A parable in the Gospels suggests that he will return to earth for the judgment of the nations. The Quran also assigns him a critical role in the last judgment, but specifies that he will testify against possessors of scriptures known as the People of the Book.

Some of these alternative doctrines and stories might well have circulated among Jewish or Christian communities in Late Antiquity, but they cannot be found in either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament. The differences matter if salvation depends on having faith in the right book.

Yancy: I assume that for Islam, we were all created as finite and therefore must die. How does Islam conceptualize the inevitability of death?

Halevi: The Quran assures us that every death, even an apparently senseless, unexpected death, springs from God’s incomprehensible wisdom and providential design. God has predetermined every misfortune, having inscribed it in a book before its occurrence, and thus fixed in advance the exact term of every creature’s life span. This sense of finitude only concerns the end of life as we know it on earth. If Muslims believe in the immortality of the soul and in the resurrection of the body, then they conceive of death as a transition to a different mode of existence whereby fragments of the self exist indefinitely or for as long as God sustains the existence of heaven and hell.

Yancy: What does Islam teach us about what happens at the very moment that we die? I ask this question because I’ve heard that the soul is questioned by two angels.

Halevi: This angelic visit happens right after the interment ceremony, which takes place as soon as possible after the last breath. Two terrifying angels, whose names are Munkar and Nakir, visit the deceased. In “Muhammad’s Grave,” I described them as “black or bluish, with long, wild, curly hair, lightning eyes, frighteningly large molars, and glowing iron staffs.” And I explained that their role is to conduct an “inquisition” to determine the dead person’s confession of faith.

Yancy: What does Islam teach about the afterlife? For example, where do our souls go? Is there a place of eternal peace or eternal damnation?

Halevi: The soul’s destination between death and the resurrection depends on a number of factors. Its detachment from a physical body is temporary, for in Islamic thought a dead person, like a living person, needs both a body and a soul to be fully constituted. Humans enjoy or suffer some sort of material existence in the afterlife; they have a range of sensory experiences.

Before the resurrection, they will either be confined to the grave or dwell in heaven or hell. The spirit of an ordinary Muslim takes a quick cosmic tour in the time between death and burial. It is then reunited with its own body inside the grave, where it must remain until the blowing of the trumpet. In this place, the dead person is able to hear the living visiting the grave site and feel pain. For the few who earn it, the grave itself is miraculously transformed into a bearable abode. Others, those who committed venial sins, undergo an intermittent purgatorial punishment known as the “torture of the grave.”

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Prophets, martyrs, Muslims who committed crimes against God and irredeemable disbelievers fare either incomparably better or far, far worse. Martyrs, for instance, are admitted into Paradise right after death. But instead of dwelling there in their mutilated or bloodied bodies, they acquire new forms, maybe assuming the shape of white or green birds that have the capacity to eat fruit.

For the final judgment, God assembles the jinn, the animals and humankind in a gathering place identified with Jerusalem. There, every creature has to stand, naked and uncircumcised, before God. In the trial, prophets and body parts such as eyes and tongues bear witness against individuals, and God decides where to send them. Throngs of unbelievers are then marched through the gates of hell to occupy — for all eternity, or so the divines usually maintained — one or another space between the netherworld’s prison and the upper layers of earth. Those with a chance of salvation need to cross a narrow, slippery bridge. If they do not fall down into a lake of fire, then they rise to heaven to enjoy, somewhere below God’s throne, never-ending sensual and spiritual delights.

Yancy: What kind of life must we live, according to Islam, to be with Allah after we die?

Halevi: The answer depends on whom you ask to speak for Islam and in what context.

A theologian might leave you in the dark but clarify that the goal is not the fusion of a human self with the divine being, but rather a dazzling vision of God.

A mystic might tell you that the essential thing is to discipline your body and soul so that you come to experience, if only for a fleeting moment, a taste or foretaste of the divine presence. Among other things, she might teach you to seek a state of personal annihilation or extinction, where you surrender all consciousness of your own self and of your material surroundings to contemplate ecstatically the face of God.

Your local imam might tell you that beyond professing your belief in the oneness of God and venerating Muhammad as the messenger of God, you ought to observe the five pillars of worship and repent for past sins. Paying your debts, giving more in charity than what is mandated and performing extra prayers could only help your chances.

A jihadist in a secret chat room might promise your online persona that no matter how you lived before committing yourself to the cause, if you beg for forgiveness and die as a martyr, you will at the very least gain freedom from the torture of the grave.

As a historian, I refrain from giving religious advice. Muslims have envisioned more than one path to salvation, and their ideals, which we might qualify as Islamic, have changed over time. Remember, for example, that in Late Antiquity and the Early Islamic period, ascetics engaged in prolonged fasts, mortification of the flesh and sexual renunciation for the sake of salvation. This was a compelling path back then. Now it is a memory.

Yancy: If one is not a Muslim, what then? Are there consequences after death for not believing or for not being a believer?

Halevi: Belief in the possible salvation of virtuous atheists and virtuous polytheists would be difficult to justify on the basis of the Muslim tradition.

But there is a variety of opinions about your question among contemporary Muslims who profess to believe in heaven and hell. Exclusive monotheists, those advocating a narrow path toward salvation, say that every non-Muslim who has chosen not to convert to Islam after hearing Muhammad’s message is likely to burn in hell. Exceptions are made for the children of infidels who die before reaching the age of reason and for people who live in a place or time devoid of exposure to the one and only true religion. On the day of judgment, these deprived individuals will be questioned by God, who may decide to admit them into heaven.

What about Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama? Will saints and spiritual leaders also meet a dire end? This is sheer speculation but I imagine that a high percentage of Muslims, if polled about their beliefs, would readily declare that nobody can fathom the depths of Allah’s mercy and that righteous individuals should be saved on account of their good deeds.

In the late 20th century, a few prominent Muslim intellectuals, yearning for a more inclusive and pluralistic approach to religion, drew inspiration from a Quranic verse to argue that Jews and Christians who believe in one God, affirm the doctrine of the last day and do works of righteousness will also enter Paradise.

Yancy: Does Islam teach its believers not to fear death?

Halevi: I am not convinced that it effectively does that. Or that teaching believers to deal with this fear is a central aim. Arguably, many religious narratives about death and the afterlife are supposed to strike dread in our hearts and thus persuade us to believe and do the right thing. Even if a believer arrogantly presumes that God will surely save him, still, he may have to face Munkar and Nakir, contend in the grave with darkness and worms, stand before God for the final judgment and cross al-Sirat, the bridge over the highest level of hell. All of this sounds quite terrifying to me.

Of course, I realize that Sufi parables may suggest otherwise. Like the poet Rumi, who fantasized about dying as a mineral, as a plant and as an animal to be reincarnated into a better life, some Sufi masters imagined dying so vividly and so often that they allegedly lost this fear.

What Islamic narratives do teach believers is not to protest death, especially to accept the death of loved ones with resignation, forbearance and full trust in God’s wisdom and justice.

Yancy: Would you share with us how the dead are to be taken care of, that is, are there specific Islamic burial rituals?

Halevi: Instead of giving you a short and direct answer, I would like to reflect a little on how the current situation, the coronavirus pandemic, is making it difficult or impossible to perform some of these rites. Locally and globally, limits on communal gatherings and social distancing requirements have devastated the bereft, making it so very difficult for them to receive religious consolation for grief and loss.

In every family, in every community, the death of an individual is a crisis. Funeral gatherings cannot repair the tear in the social fabric, but traditional rituals and condolences were designed to send the dead away and help the living cope and mourn. The pandemic has of course disrupted this.

In Muslim cultures, the corpse is normally given a ritual washing and is then wrapped in shrouds and buried in a plot in the earth. Early on during the pandemic, concerns that the cadavers of persons who died from Covid-19 might be infectious led to many adaptations. Funeral homes had to adjust to new requirements and recommendations for minimizing contact with dead bodies. And religious authorities made clear that multiple adjustments were justified by the fear of harm.

In March of 2020, to give one example, an ayatollah from Najaf, Iraq, ruled that instead of thoroughly cleaning a corpse and perfuming it with camphor, undertakers could wear gloves and perform an alternative “dry ablution” with sand or dust. And instead of insisting on the tradition of hasty burials, he ruled that it would be fine, for safety’s sake, to keep corpses in refrigerators for a long while.

In the city of Qom, Iran, the coronavirus reportedly led to the digging of a mass grave. It is not clear how the plots were actually used. But burying several bodies together in a single grave would not violate Islamic law. This extraordinary procedure has long been allowed during epidemics and war. By contrast, burning a human body is regarded as abhorrent and strictly forbidden. For this reason, there was an outcry over Sri Lanka’s mandatory cremation of Muslim victims of the coronavirus.

Every year on the 10th day of the month of Muharram, Shiites gather to lament and remember the martyrdom of al-Husayn ibn Ali, the third Imam and grandson of Muhammad the Prophet. This year Ashura, as the day is known, fell in late August. It is a national holiday in several countries. Ordinarily, millions gather to participate in it. This year, some mourned in crowds, in defiance of government restrictions and clerical advice; others contemplated the tragic past from home and perhaps joined live Zoom programs to experience the day of mourning in a radically new way.

It is far from clear today if, when the pandemic passes, the old ritual order will be restored or reinvented. One way or the other, there will be many tears.

Complete Article HERE!

Day of the Dead: How Ancient Traditions Grew Into a Global Holiday

What began as ceremonies practiced by the ancient Aztecs evolved into a holiday recognized far beyond the borders of Mexico.

By

The Day of the Dead or Día de Muertos is an ever-evolving holiday that traces its  earliest roots to the Aztec people in what is now central Mexico. The Aztecs used skulls to honor the dead a millennium before the Day of the Dead celebrations emerged. Skulls, like the ones once placed on Aztec temples, remain a key symbol in a tradition that has continued for more than six centuries in the annual celebration to honor and commune with those who have passed on.

Once the Spanish conquered the Aztec empire in the 16th century, the Catholic Church moved indigenous celebrations and rituals honoring the dead throughout the year to the Catholic dates commemorating All Saints Day and All Souls Day on November 1 and 2. In what became known as Día de Muertos on November 2, the Latin American indigenous traditions and symbols to honor the dead fused with non-official Catholic practices and notions of an afterlife. The same happened on November 1 to honor children who had died.

Day of the Dead Traditions

Families decorate a relative’s grave with flowers at a cemetery in Tzintzuntzan, Michoacan State, Mexico on November 1, 2015.

In these ceremonies, people build altars in their homes with ofrendas, offerings to their loved ones’ souls. Candles light photos of the deceased and items left behind. Families read letters and poems and tell anecdotes and jokes about the dead. Offerings of tamales, chilis, water, tequila and pan de muerto, a specific bread for the occasion, are lined up by bright orange or yellow cempasúchil flowers, marigolds, whose strong scent helps guide the souls home.

Copal incense, used for ceremonies back in ancient times, is lit to draw in the spirits. Clay molded sugar skulls are painted and decorated with feathers, foil and icing, with the name of the deceased written across the foreheads. Altars include all four elements of life: water, the food for earth, the candle for fire, and for wind, papel picado, colorful tissue paper folk art with cut out designs to stream across the altar or the wall. Some families also include a Christian crucifix or an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint in the altar.

In Mexico, families clean the graves at cemeteries, preparing for the spirit to come. On the night of November 2, they take food to the cemetery to attract the spirits and to share in a community celebration. Bands perform and people dance to please the visiting souls.

“People are really dead when you forget about them, and if you think about them, they are alive in your mind, they are alive in your heart,” says Mary J. Andrade, a journalist and author of eight books about the Day of the Dead. “When people are creating an altar, they are thinking about that person who is gone and thinking about their own mortality, to be strong, to accept it with dignity.”

Celebrating the Dead Becomes Part of a National Culture

Honoring and communing with the dead continued throughout the turbulent 36 years that 50 governments ruled Mexico after it won its independence from Spain in 1821. When the Mexican Liberal Party led by Benito Juárez won the War of Reform in December 1860, the separation of church and state prevailed, but Día de Muertos remained a religious celebration for many in the rural heartland of Mexico. Elsewhere, the holiday became more secular and popularized as part of the national culture. Some started the holiday’s traditions as a form of political commentary. Like the funny epitaphs friends of the deceased told in their homes to honor them, some wrote calaveras literarias (skulls literature)—short poems and mock epitaphs—to mock living politicians or political criticism in the press.

“This kind of thing happens alongside the more intimate observation of the family altar,” says Claudio Lomnitz, an anthropologist at Columbia University and author of Death and the Idea of Mexico. “They are not in opposition to one another.”

The Rise of La Catrina

La Catrina, c. 1910.

In Mexico’s thriving political art scene in the early 20th century, printmaker and lithographer Jose Guadalupe Posada put the image of the calaveras or skulls and skeletal figures in his art mocking politicians, and commenting on revolutionary politics, religion and death. His most well-known work, La Calavera Catrina, or Elegant Skull, is a 1910 zinc etching featuring a female skeleton. The satirical work was meant to portray a woman covering up her indigenous cultural heritage with a French dress, a fancy hat, and lots of makeup to make her skin look whiter. The title sentence of his original La Catrina leaflet, published a year before the start of the Mexican Revolution in 1911, read “Those garbanceras who today are coated with makeup will end up as deformed skulls.”

La Catrina became the public face of the festive Día de Muertos in processions and revelry. Mexican painter Diego Rivera placed a Catrina in an ostentatious full-length gown at the center his mural, completed in 1947, portraying the end of Mexico’s Revolutionary War. La Catrina’s elegant clothes of a “dandy” denote a mocking celebration, while her smile emerging through her pompous appearance reminds revelers to accept the common destiny of mortality.

Skulls of Protest, Witnesses to Blood

Over decades, celebrations honoring the dead—skulls and all—spread north into the rest of Mexico and throughout much of the United States and abroad. Schools and museums from coast to coast exhibit altars and teach children how to cut up the colorful papel picado folk art to represent the wind helping souls make their way home.

In the 1970s, the Chicano Movement tapped the holiday’s customs with public altars, art exhibits and processions to celebrate Mexican heritage and call out discrimination. In the 1980s, Day of the Dead altars were set up for victims of the AIDS epidemic, for the thousands of people who disappeared during Mexico’s drug war and for those lost in Mexico’s 1985 earthquake. In 2019, mourners set up a giant altar with ofrendas, or offerings, near a Walmart in El Paso, Texas where a gunman targeting Latinos killed 22 people.

As Lomnitz explains, one reason why more and more people may be taking part in Día de Muertos celebrations is that the holiday addresses a reality that is rarely acknowledged by modern cultures—our own mortality.

“It creates a space for communication between the living and the dead. Where else do people have that?” Lomnitz says. “These altars have become a resource and connection to that world and that’s part of their popularity and their fascination.”

Complete Article HERE!