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The Mortality Club

SAVING THE DEAD: El Dîa de los Muertos

In Mexico there is a widespread belief that we die three times. The first happens when our hearts stop beating. The second occurs when our bodies are buried in the ground and we are no longer in sight. The third and final death happens when our loved ones have forgotten us.

The Mexicans try to make sure the final death never takes place. On November 1 and 2ndof each year, they celebrate the Day of the Dead. The celebration is joyful with an emphasis on honoring the lives of departed ancestors rather than on attempting to pacify malevolent spirits.

The tradition is an old one. All the ancient Indian civilizations of Mexico celebrated El Dîa de los Meurtos. Their celebrations were held in August, and continued throughout the month. In the fifteenth century, the Spanish Conquistadors converted the locals to Catholicism. As part of their attempt to get rid of what they regarded as pagan traditions, they moved the celebration of the dead to November 1 and 2nd, so that it would coincide with the Catholic All Saints and All Souls days.

The change in date hasn’t muted the passion of the festival, nor lessened the time, energy and resources devoted to its preparation. The planning process occurs throughout the year. The fall is devoted to gathering the foods and goods that will be offered to the dead. At the end of October, families gather to clean and decorate the graves of their loved ones with wreaths of marigold and other offerings. Adults are given bottles of tequila, mexcal or atole. Toys are left at the graves of the “little angels,” the dead children. Sugar skulls often inscribed with the names of the deceased on the forehead are prepared, and eaten by a friend or relative in a passionate and joyous ritual designed to commenorate and remember their dead loved ones.

Families gather at the gravesite, bringing with them pictures of the deceased, eager to share memories or funny anecdotes about the deceased. In some villages, the gatherings at the grave last all night, as friends and family members celebrate the visitation of the spirit of the dead, and the chance to communicate with him or her once again.

Other than our Mexican-American communities, few Americans devote as much time and energy to remembering and thereby saving their dead. On the contrary, we have no rites or rituals in place to ensure that we don’t forget. Even the occasional leafing through the old family albums coupled by a casual mention of the people in the faded photographs is becoming a thing of the past. In our digital age, we honor the memory of our dead parents by posting their picture on Facebook on the anniversary of their birthdays or their death days or on Mother’s Day, or Father’s Day. Grandparents receive little if any public recognition. As to Great Grandparents….many can’t even tell you their first names, or when and where they were born.

The exception are those people who are attempting to build a family tree, and have begun using websites such as ancestry.com and other digital data bases to identify and learn about their ancestors. In the process, they are saving their dead. Quite possibly they are also saving themselves. In The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises, Nikos Kazanzakis argues why it so important for our well-being, as well as theirs, to honor and remember from whence we came.
• THE CRY IS not yours. It is not you talking, but innumerable ancestors talking with your mouth. It is not you who desire, but innumerable generations of descendants longing with your heart.
• Your dead do not lie in the ground. They have become birds, trees, air. You sit under their shade, you are nourished by their flesh, you inhale their breathing. They have become ideas and passions, they determine your will and your actions.

We cannot fully understand ourselves until we understand our ancestors. That is why, in saving them, we save ourselves. And, in teaching our children and our children’s children the importance of remembering the dead, we help them save us and themselves. Our duty to our ancestors, ourselves and our descendants is one and the same. Kazanzakis explains,

• You are not one; you are a body of troops, One of your faces lights up for a moment under the sun. Then suddenly it vanishes, and another, a younger one, lights up behind you.
• The race of men from which you come is the huge body of the past, the present, and the future. It is the face itself; you are a passing expression. You are the shadow; it is the meat.

The Mexicans understand this. In their world, the eulogy read when the body is laid to rest in the grave represents only the first of many, many times that the family and friends will come together to remember, to celebrate the life of the deceased, and to ease the journey of the departed through the land of the spirits. In recognizing that the past, the preent and the future are entertwined, they enrich the experience called Life.
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