Reflection. Day of the Dead: The triumph of memory over oblivion

Sr. Helga Leija, a Benedictine Sister of Mount St. Scholastica, lives in Atchison, Kansas. She shares a few thoughts with us.

As I walk around our Benedictine monastery in Atchison, Kansas, and see our trees slowly changing their colours for fall, my heart takes me back to the Mexican markets of my youth, where the cempasúchil flowers and supplies are sold to prepare the altars for the Day of the Dead. This year the celebration begins in Mexico on Oct. 31 and culminates with festivities on Nov. 2.

Celebrating and honouring those who have died is a basic part of my Mexican DNA. Although I am not in Mexico, I do my best each year to honour this part of my culture and religious tradition that has been handed down to us from pre-Hispanic times.

The ancient Aztec society believed that life continued beyond death, so when people died, they were wrapped and buried, and their relatives organized an elaborate celebration in order to guide them on their way to Mictlán, the kingdom of the dead. The journey there was long, dark, difficult, and filled with many obstacles and dangers.

The souls could only arrive at Mictlán with the help of a Xoloitzcuintle, a hairless dog breed believed to be a holy guardian, who would only help them if they had been kind to animals during their lifetime. The family would also place food that their deceased loved ones liked on their altars at home to provide sustenance during their journey.

When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, bringing Catholicism with them, the celebrations did not disappear, but instead were adapted to what has become a beautiful example of syncretism during All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day. Today in Mexico, contemporary observance of Day of the Dead includes Masses and devotional prayers such as novenas and rosaries as well as visits to the graves of families and friends on Nov. 1 and 2.

These November days coincide with the arrival of the monarch butterflies to Mexico. For many people in Mexico, especially in the southern state of Michoacán, the monarch butterfly is a sign that announces that the Day of the Dead is close.

When those of us who grew up in the northern part of the country see the migration of butterflies at the beginning of October, we have more time to prepare for the visit of our dearly departed ones. The ancient Purépechas, an Indigenous group from Michoacán, believed that the monarch butterflies contained the souls of the dead and that on Nov. 1 and 2, the souls of the dead travelled on the wings of the monarch butterflies to visit the altars their families prepared for them.

What is offered on the altar is traditional, cultural and deeply personal to each family. With each offering, we honour the memory of those we love. We decorate the altars with bright flowers, and we cook the foods they like.

We bring out their favourite items and place on the altar their picture, candles, flowers and other religious items. We gather as a family after Mass to pray the rosary, sing and celebrate life together. We still believe, like our ancestors, that during these days, the strength of our love and remembrance grants the souls of our loved ones a temporary return home to the world of the living.

They celebrate with their families when they come home, and they are nourished by the essence of the food offered to them as well as by being with their loved ones and celebrating both life and death. During this time, we honour and thank them for their lives and for going before us to make our journey easier.

These days are happy occasions, celebrations of life, filled with storytelling and sharing life with the rest of the family. One would imagine sadness at remembering that those we love are no longer here, but there is prayer, food, music and laughter.

Why should we be sad? After all, as George Eliot said, “Our dead are never dead to us until we have forgotten them.” If we keep honouring their memories, lighting candles for their souls, and celebrating yearly with them, their memory will triumph over oblivion. (CC BY-SA 4.0/TheLexingtonTimes)

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