Bringing the Dead to Life

Other faiths are incorporating Mexico's Dia de los Muertos to celebrate memories of loved ones

Reprinted with permission from World Magazine.

The rich sounds of congregant Sue Saum's flute filled the sanctuary with a soft, pensive tune as members of the Unitarian Church of Davis, California, came up quietly to a simple but colorful altar, placing on it photographs and mementos of loved ones. As part of a regular Sunday service, I had delivered a homily about death and remembrance, then invited the congregation to take part in a special ritual. I began by placing on the altar a photograph of my mother, Oralia, who had died a few months before. Virtually every member of the congregation followed suit. Those without a memento brought a flower and put it on the altar. I looked out and saw that there was hardly a dry eye among the 175 worshippers. Something deep, sacred, and joyous was occurring.

I was overwhelmed by the depth of feeling I had unwittingly touched. It was only the third service I had led, and the ritual of remembrance, which I'd adapted from the Mexican Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) tradition was something of an experiment. I was so worried it might not work for this highly intellectual congregation in a university town that I had made sure there were some shills in the pews. With a few helpers guaranteed to participate, I thought, "At least this won't turn into an utter disaster."


Part of the genius of the Dia de los Muertos is the way it mixes celebration and mourning. Like a good UU memorial service, it both affirms life and gives us a chance to share our grief.

After the ritual, dozens of people came up to thank me. A retired man in his 70s stands out in my memory. He opened his wallet and showed me a slip of paper with the name of a dear friend killed in World War II. Having carried that name in wallet after wallet for more than 50 years, the man told me this was the first time he had been able to remember that friend in an open, public way in his faith community. Days after the ceremony, I received a note from a leader of the congregation thanking me for giving her permission to grieve.

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Peter Morales
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