It’s interesting how cultures handle death and the idea of death in differing ways. The American culture treats death as a taboo subject and most people shy away from any discussion related to death. This cultural dynamic makes grieving for the loss of a loved one particularly difficult, as grieving individuals have limited resources and outlets to manage their bereavement. Most Americans are uncomfortable around grieving people as the sadness and other strong emotions are difficult to handle.
Americans can learn a great deal from the Mexican traditions of honoring the dead by observing the Day of the Dead, which is a two day celebration of the life of loved ones who have passed. The Mexican culture honors their ancestors by continuing their relationships through generations of storytelling and remembering. Over the years many traditions and rituals have developed and are associated specifically with this Mexican holiday.
Here are a few to get you thinking….One tradition is the reciting of funny stories about the deceased, as it is believed that the deceased would prefer to be remembered cheerfully as opposed to somberly. This also allows the younger generations to hear stories about their ancestors and to feel connected with older generations, including those family members who have already died.
A specialty food that is offered during this time of year is pan de muerto, a lightly orange flavored sweet bread that has “bonelike” decorations on it. And, who hasn’t seen the representation of a sugar skull (cookie in the shape of a skull—usually a sugar cookie)? The brilliantly decorated sugar skulls are created to be added to the family altar with the name of the deceased written across the forehead in icing.
People often gather in a festive type atmosphere at graveyards where they concentrate on cleaning the area around the headstone and leaving “Mexican Marigolds” also known as flor de muerto as an offering. Many families hold graveside vigils on November 1st.
The most notable custom is the construction of altars that are decorated in bright orange and purple, which are then lavished with ofrendas (offerings) of candles, flowers and personal objects. This is a visual representation of their continuing relationship with those family members who have died.
The purpose of this holiday is to provide families a designated time of prayer for their deceased ancestors and it helps them acknowledge the loss and grieve. It is also a way to include the whole family and multiple generations in celebrating the lives of their ancestors.
We hope that you take some time over the next few days, to celebrate the Day of the Dead in your own way – by taking time to remember your loved one(s) who have died and to try some of the traditional Mexican Day of the Dead activities.