Every year in mid-autumn, local galleries here invite submission of art related to the Day of the Dead. At least in Texas, where Mexican culture has become so mainstream that its symbolism is part of everyday life, this celebration is really ubiquitous.
However, there is something to be noted: said galleries feel the need to warn artists not to submit any Halloweeny content, like zombies and other gore. The Day of the Dead is nothing like Halloween, they insist to explain; it’s not about fear or disguise but about respect and connection with death.
And there is something very telling in our confusion and replacement of a day of commemoration of the dead with an (optionally scary) dress up party that Halloween has become. I agree, dress up is good and it used to have its own time for that (Carnival), but today I’d like to argue that we need more of what the Day of the Dead is: an opportunity to connect with death and our own departed to help us better make sense of their departure and our life. And I believe that village culture does that very well.
Of course, remembrance of the dead exists in modern industrial society as well. And it is capable of handling the death of loved ones, with bereavement and grief counseling, obituaries and personalized commemorations, commercially maintained cemeteries and a funeral industry that relieves family members of any organizational duties to free them up for grieving. It’s not difficult to die or grieve in this context.
But still, there is something missing. A lot, actually: while we are freed from many potentially unpleasant occasions to face death in person, we are deprived of opportunities to process it and integrate it in our lives all along. Sometimes I am thinking that the exacting personal participation in carrying out a funeral, which is a necessity in village culture, may actually benefit grieving. Distract from despair, at the minimum. The personal involvement, which in village culture includes washing and preparation of the body, is a very physical ritual of parting that has some forceful psychological value.
While I haven’t had the chance to bury my own loved ones, I remember being taken to funerals in my grandparents’ village when I was little, of people who weren’t relatives or even regular acquaintances for me, but to whom my grandmother felt a social obligation to give final respects. The experience wasn’t scary, even while I was noticing all the potentially strange details: the placing of coins on a dead person’s eyes, the doll placed in the coffin of a little boy struck by a lightening and so many other. Those occasions gave my grandmother a chance to instruct me that she was also going to die and what I was to do when that happens.
And then there’s the cemetery. This is not based on any research to back this up, but my feeling is that most Mediterranean cemeteries, as opposed to other areas, include a gravestone portrait of the dead. This must be a recent tradition (brought about by the invention of photography, of course), but there is something really emotional by seeing a picture of the person whose grave you are visiting on the gravestone. It feels like a real-time conversation.
And then, the annual reminder of connecting with the departed, which falls at the beginning of November in most of Europe and Latin America (the Day of the Dead, in fact) and includes the convivial sharing of food in memory of dead family members. This feast, even if it doesn’t follow any other required ritual steps, inevitably will include conversations about the people we’ve lost and care about, embedded mutual comfort and is in practice a support group for the grieving. It’s a welcome, obligatory occasion for those of us, like me, who lack other opportunities or even an inclination to talk about dead family members out of the blue. While I didn’t like the traditional food that village people exchange on that day to honor each others’ dead, consuming it and mentioning their names forced me to consider mortality and what I would feel like when it affects me for real. It made me rethink the triviality of my everyday concerns and treasure what I have.