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Bringing the Dead to Life
By Peter Morales

Rituals borrowed from another culture restore a sense of history--and joy--to the act of remembering

July/August 2000

The rich sound 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 worshipers. 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 Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) tradition, was something of an experiment. I was so worried it might not work at 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 Día 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 Día de los Muertos is an annual November holiday that combines the 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 Día de los Muertos as primitive or quaint. Surely, few of us share the cosmology of rural Mexicans who lay out favorite foods in memory of a dead relative. If I do this with my mother's 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.

I'm not speaking metaphysically or theologically. I'm talking about the very real stuff of memory, history, and molecular biology. Look in the mirror. The DNA of your ancestors is alive in you. Look at your children and grandchildren and see yourself and your ancestors. Think of the decisions made by your parents and grandparents. Their choices shaped your life. And the choices we make every day shape the lives of those to come. The interconnections stretch across time.

This is what the Día de los Muertos reminds us of, and this is its power. A simple ceremony of remembrance puts us in touch with our place in time and our mortality, and it reminds us that to live is to create a legacy that endures for generations.

The Día de los Muertos rituals I have led--and the other UU Día de los Muertos rituals I know of--are quite modest and plain by comparison with Mexican observances of the holiday. The idea is not to mimic the Mexican tradition but to draw from its wisdom. The ritual I conducted in Davis in 1997 was a variation of one I had seen a year earlier, led by the Rev. Lindi Ramsden in San Jose, California. There, as in Davis, I witnessed a congregation deeply affected by a simple ceremony of remembrance.

I led a similar ritual last fall at Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colorado, where I am now the senior minister. Again I saw the power of taking time to feel our connection with those whose lives have helped shape ours.

Linda Ropes, president of the board at Jefferson Unitarian, recalls arriving at the service with deep misgivings. "I walked uneasily into the sanctuary that morning, clutching the photo of my 11-year-old daughter, unsure whether I wanted to revisit the pain that has gradually diminished since she died 15 years ago," she says. "Why open up old wounds? However, as president of the board of trustees, I am expected to attend as many church functions as possible, so there I was. I plunked down next to a fellow board member. We nodded cordially and retreated into our own thoughts."

But as the service began, continues Ropes, "The music and poetry were powerfully moving. Gradually, I was no longer alone with my grief, but part of a whole community of UUs who had also lost loved ones. We shared our sorrow by silently placing on the altar photos or mementos of those we had lost. I felt such a sense of community that it helped relieve some of the pain I felt. When I returned to my seat, I asked my fellow board member whose photo she had placed on the altar. ‘My son,' she whispered, and explained how her child had died in an accident years ago. As she told her tale, she expanded from the board member who cared so fervently about social concerns to a grieving mother--just like me." After the service Ropes says she and her board colleague went up to the altar "arm in arm, . . . to view each other's children and stood and wept with dozens of other supportive people.

"Although I will no longer be serving on the board," she says, "I will be attending the service for the Day of the Dead next year."

Sue Saum, who played flute at the Davis service, says the service deepened her relationship with another woman in her congregation. Saum, who had lost a daughter, learned that her friend had lost a daughter also. "We have a connection we never would have had any other way," she says.

Saum adds that she also appreciates the way the Día de los Muertos tradition mixes grief and celebration. "So many parts of that tradition are loving and celebratory instead of terribly mournful and downhearted. It doesn't deny the grief, but it has this whole other part," she says.

In the last year I've learned that UUs in congregations across the continent are having similar experiences. The Día de los Muertos is quietly becoming a tradition in scores of our churches from California to Massachusetts.

Conducting the Día de los Muertos ceremonies has profoundly and permanently affected my view of Unitarian Universalists and my own sense of ministry. I now see there is a depth of feeling and passion just below the surface among us. We're united not just by abstract principles and lofty ideals but by memory, personal loss, and shared history. What is more, because the larger culture denies the reality of death and has little sense of history, a day of remembering our dead can be profoundly religious. When we allow ourselves to feel our place along the continuum of life and death, it moves us deeply. Facing death sharpens our sense of being alive and our connection to one another. And the dead help remind us of what is most meaningful and joyous in the world. Ultimately, then, the Día de los Muertos celebrates life.

Creating a Day of the Dead
in Your Congregation

Unitarian Universalists can be reluctant to appropriate other people's traditions. All told, this sensitivity is good. We shouldn't patronize or merely mimic others. However, I have never heard a Latino or indigenous person from Latin America object to "Anglos" observing the Día de los Muertos. Just the opposite. Latino people I know enjoy the idea of this tradition's being adapted by those of European descent. This may be because the Día de los Muertos is itself a mixture of traditions, and cultural borrowing is so normal in Hispanic religious observance that no one thinks it strange.

So don't let qualms about stealing someone else's culture deter you from drawing upon the Día de los Muertos tradition. Indeed, feel free to alter it and adapt it to your situation. The important thing is to have a public time to remember the dead. Receive the wisdom and power of this tradition as a gift--and as with any gift, treat it with respect.

Here are some tips on how to begin.

  1. Create an altar by covering a large table with cloth. Don't be afraid to use something colorful--I have used a Peruvian tapestry and a Mexican rug.
  2. Hang colorful cut paper (papel picado) above or behind the altar. Anything will do, so long as the patterns are playful and the colors bright. Use your imagination; there is no right way.
  3. Place lit candles on the altar to help create a mood.
  4. Make plenty of cut flowers available so that people who did not bring a photo or memento have something to put on the altar too. Marigolds are traditional, but any flower will do.
  5. Plan for music, both lively and pensive, during the ceremony of bringing mementos and flowers to the altar. Use the talent in your congregation.


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