All Souls Day/Dia de Los Muertos

All Souls Day/Dia de Los Muertos Nov 2, 2015

As I pack away my jeweled bat earrings, my black wig, and my face paint for yet another year, I have been musing about the relationship between Halloween (originally Hallowed Evening), and All Saints Day/All Souls Day/ Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Not raised Catholic, I have never been clear about the meaning of the days after Halloween. I guess I’ve always known that it had something to do with death, but not knowing much about the Catholic saints and martyrs, I didn’t know why they were being celebrated on Nov 1. From living in the Philippines for two years I learned a little more about All Souls Day, a day for visiting, cleaning, and decorating the graves of ancestors and praying for them.

I remember a conversation many years ago with friends in the steam bath about how we deal with death—in particular, how we handle the bodies of departed loved ones. At the time, all but one of us had never experienced death close up. A Yup’ik friend was amazed at this, as in her culture the job of preparing the body is tended by family members, not relegated to professional undertakers. This led me to consider how our culture encourages us to avoid death. And while we are allowed to cry at funerals or memorial services, we are expected to get quickly past our grief and move on with our lives.   What would it be like if we had an annual celebration of the lives of those who have left us? To fill this gap in white culture, some are turning to Dia de Los Muertos.

This attraction is understandable, writes Aya de Leon in a Facebook posting today. She says, “This indigenous holiday from Mexico celebrates the loving connection between the living our departed loved ones that is deeply missing in Western culture.” However, her message to Gringos is: “You want our culture but you don’t want us—Stop colonizing the Day of the Dead.”   She points out that all people are welcome at Dia de los Muertos celebrations organized by Latino communities in many U.S. cities. She also points out that there are indigenous European cultural traditions commemorating the dead (dating from before these traditions were themselves appropriated by the Catholic Church). Her complaint is that white people are appropriating Day of the Dead customs without regard for the Latino communities in which the customs are authentically rooted.

While Quakers historically did not celebrate holidays at all, believing that all days were equally sacred and holy, we do have a longstanding tradition of memorial meetings, where we sit in quiet worship and bring up names of those who have departed. This is a far cry from the colorful celebrations of Dia de Los Muertos with the flowers, decorated altars, and dancing skeletons, but it does provide a time for collectively remembering those whose lives impacted us in important ways.

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