Friday, November 12, 2010

on celebrating the dead

Every year in Tucson, just after Halloween, thousands of people come together to celebrate the dead. Drawing mainly on traditions from the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), we gather wearing masks, face paint, and costumes, and bearing lanterns, flowers, candles, altars, and signs which honor those who have passed, and we walk through the streets. Tradition has it that the veil between the living world and the spirit world lifts during this time, so that the spirits are free to roam the living world. By wearing masks or face paint that hide our living form, we invite the spirits to come amongst us, as no one will be able to tell who is living or who is dead. We wait for our ancestors and loved ones who have passed on- as they will surely visit us. We set a place for them at table, and leave a special bread (pan de muertos, or bread of the dead) on the altar, and the spirits are thought to consume the essence of it. If we were to eat it the next day, it would have no nutritional value because the spirits would have taken that. Some families have feasts in the cemetery, to honor other family members buried there.

At the Tucson All Soul's Procession, the creative community puts some major effort into this celebration. There are performers of all sorts, vocalists, musicians, stilt walkers, fire dancers, aerial dancers, artists, and more. The parade of souls comes to an end, and a performance ensues, which honors and celebrates those who have passed. A large paper urn has led the procession here, and within this urn are thousands of papers with messages, thoughts, and prayers written by Tusconans. The urn is lifted by crane, and lit on fire in front of everyone. Thus, our words are sent up and out into the universe. Such a symbolic community prayer is so powerful.

I really love this celebration. I think that our American culture does a really lousy job of dealing with death. Death is the one thing we can be certain of. And we avoid it, run from it, and do not talk of it. Funerals here are somber and grief filled things that most dread. Why? When in so many other cultures, death is celebrated. I'm not saying that grief shouldn't exist- grief is there and necessary and good and hard and human. Rather, we should embrace that grief instead of hiding from it. We should celebrate the lives of those who have passed, and whose impressions remain. Life is a beautiful thing, and to have lived it at all is quite phenomenal. We are thankful for those who have made these impressions on us, that we had the chance to know them at all during their time here. We celebrate and honor the love they showed, the things they did, the people they touched, the passions they shared. These things are beautiful. And regardless of your beliefs about life after death, the people who have passed are never completely gone. They live on in our hearts and our memories. And we miss them. And this celebration honors that. That we miss them, and that a part of them is with us always.

I have learned much during my time in Tucson, and when we move away this spring, one of the things I will take with me is this celebration. Wherever we are, I will honor the dead in this way- with celebration and offering.

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