When I was a little boy, my abuelita -- my 'little grandmother' -- would put me to bed at night and say her nightly prayers with me. We would pray for my mother, my brother, my aunts and uncles, and each one of my many cousins. And when we had finished praying for the living, we would then pray for the dead... for her mother and father, her brothers and sisters, for my grandfather in heaven, and for my cousin who had been murdered. I remember how I felt as if we were fulfilling some holy purpose with these prayers, giving something necessary to the souls of the dead, and I slept more peacefully because of it. It was not until I was older that I realized that most of the people I knew did not pray for their dead. The dead were just dead to them, or in a kind of heaven where they did not need our prayers, or in a hell where our prayers could not help them. But my abuelita's heaven was not a place out of reach where the dead had nothing to do with us. Her heaven was the place of souls, where our ancestors and loved-ones dwelt together, a place where we could continue to speak to them, to offer them our love and ask their help when we needed it.
It is this belief, this view of the spirit-world that gives life to El Día de los Muertos, 'the Day of the Dead' in Mexican culture. Each year, on November the 2nd, corresponding to All Souls' Day in the Catholic Church, many people believe that the dead make the long journey back from the spirit-world to be with us here on earth. Thus, we go out to cemeteries to wash and decorate their gravestones, often taking along food for a picnic. In Mexico, there are grandes fiestas -- big parties -- that take place in the cemetery and go on late into the night as people sing and dance amid candles set upon the graves. At home, we build elaborate altares -- 'altars' -- and make ornate ofrendas -- 'offerings' -- of food and other items in honor of our loved-ones, and to make their journeys worth-while.
Although the ofrenda may look like a religious altar for worship, it is actually a spiritual memorial and a place of communion. It is the focal-point in our homes for 'greeting' our loved ones. Thus, nearby is sometimes a basin of water and a towel with which they can refresh themselves from their long journey.* On the altar is often el pan de los muertos -- 'the bread of the dead,' sweet pastries in the shape of bones -- salt and something for them to drink. If they enjoyed tequila in their lifetime, like my abuelita, you might also find that on the altar.
The altares we build and the ofrendas are truly as much for them as they are for us. They are the symbol of our communion with the dead. It is said that the dead consume the 'spiritual substance' of the food and share the material substance of it with us. By displaying their pictures, we remind them that we have not forgotten them. By making offerings in love, we demonstrate to them that they are still present in our hearts, and ask them to continue to be present in our lives. We ask them to guide us through the difficulties of life with their vision and to intercede for us from the other side. Thus, El Día de los Muertos is amongst the most holy, and the most human of all our holidays. We are reminded of how precious life is and how sacred our relationships with the people we love. And not least, we are reminded of how death cannot steal our joy if we embrace it and keep the connection to the dead.
* Note: The journey of the dead begins on October 18th and ends on November 2nd, the Day of the Dead.