While many in the U.S. will observe today as Halloween – a night for Jack-o-lanterns, costumes, parties, and “trick or treating” – our neighbors to the South will be observing a much more ancient tradition called “Dia de Los Muertes” – the Day of the Dead. The Day of the Dead, originating in Mexico and observed to varying degrees throughout Central America, is a special celebration for honoring loved ones who have died, in hopes their spirits will return for a visit. Families build altars in their homes, as places of loving remembrance, and they visit cemeteries for family feasts, and to decorate family tombs and grave sites. Day of the Dead celebrations often include parades, feasts, decorations, and colorful skeletal costumes.
Probably, the most familiar image, to most, from the Day of the Dead is the “Sugar Skull” – images of skulls or skeletons, decorated with elaborated dress and beautiful flowers.
I’ve heard some say the Day of the Dead is evil, or morbid, or, at least, weird. But, I love it! If you ask me, Halloween is weird! Whether Halloween is an opportunity to adorn a different persona, or self-indulge in parties and candy, or, at worst, glorify evil, it’s all a bit strange to me. But, I think the Day of the Dead is kind of beautiful.
The Day of the Dead embraces death as an inevitable part of the life experience. The Day of the Dead keeps the love and memories of the deceased alive in ritual form. The Day of the Dead celebrates life! The Day of the Dead imagines the distance between the material and spiritual world as being rather thin.
And, frankly, though the Day of the Dead traditions arose from the indigenous peoples of Mexico, aspects of the traditions feel very Christian to me….
- We believe Christ has conquered death, and opened the gates to eternity.
- Hebrews 12:1 says we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,” which I understand to mean the souls and spirits of those who have died in the Lord.
- We believe in honoring the “saints” who have gone before us, and on whose spiritual shoulders we stand, whose lives deserve to be remembered.
- We believe life is a gift to be celebrated fully.
No, the Day of the Dead is not, technically, a Christian holiday. But, it is a rich cultural tradition, celebrating life, death, and the life after death.
In ancient times, Christian monks would keep the skull of a deceased and decomposed brother on their prayer desk, as a reminder of their own mortality. Can you imagine praying, with the hollow eye sockets of a deceased brother staring at you? Tibetan Buddhists sometimes meditate with prayer beads in the shape of tiny skulls, sometimes carved from yak bone, for the same purpose.
Death is a reality we inevitably face. There’s just no escaping it! Though Christians believe we will live forever, none will do so without passing through death. While death is an enemy, in that it is the end of our earthly existence, it is also a defeated enemy, in that it is not the final ending of our eternal existence. Really, death is nothing more than a transition from life to more life. In some ways, death is akin to birth, passing from one existence to the next.
Dare we also say death can be a friend? After all, death, if we will embrace it, reminds us that each and every day is a gift and blessing. Death is a reminder to live every day on earth to the fullest, and strive not to waste even one. And, death is a promise that when the struggles of this life are over – and some of us struggle a lot – there’s a better life waiting for us on the other side.
Feliz Dia de Los Muertes, mis amigos!