11/04/2013 10:45 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

A Holiday Worth Celebrating

Millions of our Latin-American neighbors, and some of us, have just celebrated a wonderful holiday. It's a shame that so many millions of Americans are not even aware of it, and have never considered whether our neighbors have an idea worth adopting.

The holiday is referred to in Spanish as "Dia de los Muertos," or in English, as "The Day of the Dead," a time when families honor and commune with the souls of their dead relatives. It's principally celebrated each November 2, All Souls Day, mostly in Mexico, but also in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru, parts of Europe, and many American communities including Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. Many people observe it on November 1 as well.

As my wife and I found out a few years ago in Nogales, Mexico, much of the celebrating is in cemeteries. So much merriment in a graveyard was a bizarre sight to us Americans. Vendors loudly peddled ice cream pops and red and blue balloons. Mariachi bands made music and children shouted, playing tag on grandma's grave. Parents laughed and sang as they sat on gravesites, hugging babies and devouring food and drink from picnic baskets. Bright flowers were everywhere: orange and yellow marigolds, red, pink and blue-dyed roses and hundreds of other flowers, purple wreaths and ribbons.

At home, families set up colorful altars with photos of dead relatives and the deceased's favorite knick-knacks and foods. Brightly decorated skulls made of sugar and candy, and skeletons of all sizes and shapes, some performing real-life tasks from farming to firefighting, are the most popular holiday toys and adult novelties. These are not intended to scare anybody. The faces on the skulls are content, often smiling, designed to suggest that death is normal and natural, to be acknowledged rather than enshrouded.

Mexicans and other celebrants believe that on All Souls Day the souls of dead relatives are joined with those of the living. So children and adults flock to cemeteries to bond with dead relatives, sometimes in candlelight vigils, and with specially-prepared foods to be shared, at least in spirit, with their dear departed. Best known is a bread, flavored with sugar, orange peel and anise called "Pan de Muertos" or "bread of the dead."

The holiday was originally pagan, with Aztec roots Sixteenth-century Spanish priests tried to do away with it when they forced Mexican Indians to convert to Catholicism. But tradition was too strong, and, as a compromise, it got fused, principally, with All Souls Day.

The Day of the Dead is often wrongly compared with our Halloween, just before it, on October 31. Halloween, too, features skeletons, skulls, and other ghostly creatures. But it's celebrated here as a holiday for children (albeit with considerable adult assistance), is scary rather than celebratory, and totally lacks the spiritual and family significance of the Mexican observance.

Their celebration points up the fact that Mexicans have a very different view of death than Americans, one expressed by the late Octavio Paz, Mexico's leading man of letters and winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize for Literature. Paz says the Mexican "is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love. True, there is perhaps as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away."

Indeed, Paz wrote, Mexicans see "death as origin. The ancient, original source is the grave, not a womb." That view may be based on a combination of the Aztec idea that the universe died and was born again in cycles, and the Catholic belief in salvation through the death of a God, which, together, result in what one writer calls "a cultural framework that relates to death, not as a catastrophic and fearful event but as a natural and, occasionally, even enticing proposition."

This view contrasts sharply with the avoidance with which Americans treat the subject. British historian Arnold Toynbee once termed death "un-American," in our culture of youth, beauty and virility. For many Americans, a visit to a relative's gravesite is a rarity. Festivities there are even rarer. Children are shielded from knowledge of death whenever possible.

As cultural critic Elliot Essman has written:

Americans do not like to talk directly about death... people don't die; they 'pass away' or simply 'pass', 'expire,' or 'kick the bucket.' Dead people are 'the departed,' or 'loved ones.' They are 'laid to rest,' rather than buried...Americans have made death what sex once was, a subject only alluded to.

Funeral parlors have their own euphemisms. Some refer to a customer's visit before a death as "pre-need." After death, a relative's visit is referred to as "at need." The word "death" goes unmentioned.

In short, to Americans, "death" is still a dirty word. How many times have you read a newspaper obituary about someone who "lost her battle" with some affliction, as though any person could avoid dying? In their celebration of The Day of the Dead, Mexicans and many others, even among the youngest, least educated, understand and accept this inevitability, along with the clear continuity that links death with life.

One need not be religious or believe in annual visitations with dead souls to appreciate these inescapable realities. But too many Americans refuse to do so. As Essman puts it: "In any given case, death in America is optional until proved otherwise."