Carrie Brown-Wolf: Honoring ancestors: Death lessons and global traditions (column)
The Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, was just celebrated in Mexico, throughout many Latin countries and in many parts of our country. The name often scares people, but the Day of the Dead is a holiday and celebration to remember our ancestors, honoring loved ones.
The holiday stems from ancient Aztec traditions that later merged with practices by Catholic conquistadors. The Catholic traditions stemmed from Celtic, nature-driven practices — a good example of globally-blended rituals and relationships.
Let’s start from the beginning. The ancient Meso-American cultures and Aztec civilization recognized death as a time of rebirth and a continuation of life. They used skulls as a symbol to remember their ancestors. Because Nov. 2 marks the halfway point between the fall equinox and the winter solstice, it indicates the time of the year where we enter our darkest days. The Celtic culture coined Nov. 2 Samhain, a day when people lit bonfires to lighten the dark nights. Pope Gregory III later designated Nov. 1 as All Saints’ Day, honoring saints and martyrs. Eventually, the night before became All Hallows’ Eve, now celebrated as Halloween in our country. The connection between cultures is astounding.
The Day of the Dead emerged as a celebration to honor and remember family and friends who’ve passed on. In Mexico, people visit graveyards, light candles, play music and make special foods in a party-like atmosphere. Skulls and skeletons aren’t meant to make people afraid or scared of death; rather, the skeletons are often depicted doing things like playing baseball or dancing. People want to remember their loved ones practicing the things they enjoyed. The Day of the Dead is a celebration to honor them.
Unfortunately, many Americans face death with fear. We hire funeral homes to handle the dead rather than inviting friends and family to mourn inside personal homes. Often, we talk about dying in hushed tones, scared that we might jinx ourselves — the very word causing a curse. But dying is part of life; it is our one guarantee. Instead of thinking of dead people as zombies or ghosts or Stephen King-like characters who scare us, the spirit of the dead are here to help, to guide, to comfort us. How wonderful to have a holiday that supports and honors this concept.
As we enter the American season to give thanks, let’s merge with other global customs and take time to thank our ancestors. We wouldn’t be here without them.
Carrie Brown-Wolf lives in Silverthorne.
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