Every religious and cultural tradition in history has a way of dealing with the difficult issue of death. Our scripture readings today are two examples from our Christian tradition. The gospel of John story of Jesus and Lazarus suggests that it is possible to bring someone back from the dead, feeding directly into the Christian hope of resurrection. And the passage from Revelation speaks to the hope that someday, at the final climax of history, death will be destroyed, once and for all.
Yet, despite those assurances, we – we humans – don’t do very well with death. We’d just as soon not talk about death. And when we do, we do it euphemistically, like “passed away” or “dearly departed.” Indeed, we’d just as soon deal with death as Ernest Becker does in his iconic book, The Denial of Death – we live our lives as if we aren’t going to die because truly facing our mortality is just too much of a burden to bear. So, we – we humans – just don’t deal with it, despite the universality of it. As a result, most cultures don’t deal with it very well either. However, there is a notable exception: the Mexican celebration of Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. I think there is something in this tradition that can teach us about how we face death. Let’s explore.
A very popular movie released this past year and one the deals explicitly with our subject today was Pixar’s Coco, a delightful story about a young boy in a small Mexican village who finds himself magically transported to the Land of the Dead where he experiences all kinds of adventures. And in the process, Coco provides those of us who are not be too up on the concept, a wonderful introduction to what Día de los Muertos is all about.
First, some backstory. Day of the Dead is not Halloween. Sometimes they get confused. Halloween or All Hallows Eve is a medieval European Christian observance, literally meaning the night before All Saints’ Day. So, on the church calendar there are these three days – Halloween on the 31st, All Saints’ Day on the 1st, and All Souls’ Day on the 2nd. The three days together are called “Allhallowtide.” These observances date back to the 700’s – Pope Gregory.
All Saints’ Day, observed on the 1st, was established as a day to remember the faithful “saints” of the past, well known and unknown – St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Francis, the pious aunt who went to mass every day. People who exemplified the best of devotion and witness…Saints! In Catholic theology the saints represented the “church triumphant,” those already eternally living in heaven.
In practice, All Saints’ Day began at sundown the day before, hence the title All Hallows Eve, for October 31st. It was eventually shortened to Halloween. In time customs developed to help bring in the day. Many of our current Halloween customs, (costumes, trick-or-treat, etc.) have their origins in these ancient practices. And we’re not going to go into how and why all that developed. This sermon is not about Halloween.
All Souls’ Day, observed on the 2nd, is a bit different. It is a day to remember and pray for those who have died. In Catholic theology these would be souls who have died and are still in purgatory, hence the need to pray for them. Prayers were often focus on deceased loved one because you wanted them to escape the agony of purgatory while being punished for the sins while they were alive.
Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, had no direct connection with any of these European Christian traditions, at least originally. Día de los Muertos harkens back to ancient Mesoamerica (Mexico and northern Central America) amongst the indigenous Aztecs and Mayans. When the Spanish arrived, at first these celebrations of remembering deceased loved ones, were rejected by the Catholic church. But in time, the ritual was eventually intertwined with the church observances of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Today, Día de los Muertos is celebrated mostly in Mexico and some parts of Central and South America. In recent years, it has become increasingly popular in the United States. And, to a small degree, has been a part of Noe Valley Ministry’s observance of this Sunday for several decades.
Día de los Muertos is based on the idea that death is part of the journey of life. Rather than death ending life, they believed that new life came from death, like in the cyclical nature of agriculture, whereby crops grow from the ground where the last crop lies buried. And so, for Mexican families, it is a time to remember and celebrate the lives of departed loved ones.
According to the legend, when people die they go to the Land of the Dead. Once a year, the people in the Land of the Living welcomed back their deceased loved ones for a day of celebration. Departed loved ones journeyed across the bridge made of marigolds to the village cemetery where they would join the living for a time of family celebration with picnics and music and dancing. A day of family celebration.
But there is one caveat. The deceased loved ones must be remembered! If they are not remembered by the living family that can’t come to the celebration. And this is where the ofrenda comes in. This family altar, if you will, is where the remembering takes place in the form of pictures and memorabilia. By doing this the family makes sure their departed loved ones can make it across the marigold bridge.
So, the ofrenda is central to the preparations for the day. And it has several elements that make that possible. Besides the pictures, there are representatives of the Four Elements (Earth, Wind, Water and Fire) to help the spirit travelers find their way. The candles represent Fire to light the way. The colorful, artful banners are the wind that speeds them along. The Water is to help quench their thirst. Earth is represented in the form of bread and other foodstuffs to provide sustenance. And, of course, marigolds which are the magical element that creates the bridge from the Land of the Dead to the Land of the Living. But, all in all, the ofrenda is the thing that helps the living remember their loved ones. It’s all about family.
My daughter Rachel’s in-law family is huge – 12 siblings, all married, with 29 children between them. Out of that mass of family, is one who works for Pixar and specifically on the movie, Coco (His name is in the credits!). Mike tells me that Pixar really wanted to do it right in making Coco. That was a daunting task since the director was a white guy from Cleveland with virtually no connection to Mexico at all. He knew nothing. So much of the Coco project was about getting it right, lots of time spent in Mexico with people who know the culture well. It was really important to honor the tradition with integrity and dignity. And they did pull it off.
And what the movie really gets right, besides being incredibly entertaining with a good story, good music and is beautiful, is that is about family. Yes, sometimes families are difficult with misunderstandings, hurtful actions and resentments. The movie does not shy away from such difficulties. But the moral of the story is that it is never too late to forgive.
And, maybe most important, what we can learn from the tradition of Día de los Muertos is in helping us face death more realistically, with less fear, and more connection to what and who has gone before. It is a great way to begin a conversation with children. It’s about family.
Now, despite all this extolling of family, I realize that for many of us embracing our families, living and dead, is fraught with issues – difficult, sometimes abusive or oppressive relationships. We’ve tried but there is just too much between us. The prospect for reconciliation and forgiveness is just too far off. Sometimes blood family issues are just too much. We just have to let them go.
Given that, we might find ourselves creating alternative families. Or as Life in the City author, Armistead Maupin puts it, our “logical family.” These are people from our various walks of life that accept and love us just for who we are. Sometimes blood family can only see a judgmental version of who we should be or should have become.
In one form or another, it’s about family. Celebrating blood family with all the messiness, seeking understanding and forgiveness. Celebrating our past loved ones without shrinking back from death itself. And celebrating our “logical families” wherever we may find them. My hope and prayer is that Noe Valley Ministry might be a “logical family” in your life. But, all in all, it’s about family. Amen.