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.
The Dia de los Muertos is an annual November holiday that combines Roman Catholic All Saints and All Souls days rituals with 2,000-year-old Mexican Indian traditions. Unlike Halloween, where the dead are seen as threatening, the Mexican holiday honors and remembers them with two days of feasting, processions, pageantry, and religious rites that sometimes include fireworks.
Preparations begin in mid-October, when markets and shops begin selling all sorts of paraphernalia: delicate paper cut-outs of skeletons called papel picado,
decorated wreaths and crosses, sweetened breads, sugar or chocolate skulls, and macabre toys such as miniature coffins made of paper or wood and containing skeletons that sit up when a string is pulled. In rural Mexico, the holiday involves placing the dead person's favorite foods, photographs, flowers, and mementos on a home altar. Many families also keep all-night, candlelight vigils in the graveyards where their dead are buried and attend open-air memorial masses. November 1 is commonly devoted to remembering infants and children; November 2 to remembering adults. Today, the tradition is enjoying something of a revival in Mexican-American communities in the United States.
We sophisticated UUs are apt to see the Dia de los Muertos as primitive or quaint. Surely, few of us share the cosmology of rural Mexicans who lay out favorite foods (maybe one of my aunt Amelia's wonderful Christmas tamales or her calabacita stew); I don't believe her spirit will return and be pleased at being remembered. Nor do I believe my mother will hear her favorite old Mexican tunes if I play a recording of them.
Yet if we dismiss the Day of the Dead as pure superstition, we can easily miss the profound spiritual and psychological insight that makes this tradition powerful. A Mexican boy spending the night at his uncle's grave has a connection across time with his forebears that our children do not. While we dwellers in a technological age are connected to the World Wide Web, cellular phones, and cable TV, have message machines, voice mail, pagers, and call waiting, we have cut ourselves off from the web of time. Traditional cultures, with their mediums and ghosts and reincarnations, have understood intuitively something we've repressed: The dead don't die; they live on.