Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Day of the Dead

Let's face it: some cultures are better than others at shrine-making.

Luckily for me, the area where I live is a hotbed of shrine-ism and, in fact, an intensely rich deposit of Dia de los Muertos celebrations. Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is not the same as Halloween, or All Hallows' Eve. In the European tradition, All Hallows' Eve has its roots in the Gaelic holiday of Samhain (pronounced Sow-wen), which came after the harvest, at the end of the year, just before the world died for awhile. It was a liminal time, when spirits came close and magic was strong; and it had the shadow of the dark behind it.

Dia de los Muertos, on the other hand, comes from the indigenous peoples of Mexico, who celebrated the deaths of their ancestors for nearly a month each summer. Perhaps because it is less associated with autumn, with the beginning of the dark and cold, it has an entirely different feel from Halloween. In Mexico, it is a time to rejoice in your loved ones and your ancestors who have passed on to another life. Offerings of food, toys, blankets (so they can rest after their long journey), flowers and so on are put out, in specially-built household shrines or on tables in the yard, for the dead to enjoy. Graves are cleaned and hung with flowers; in some places whole families spend the night at the graves of their loved ones, picnicking and singing, with candles and colored lights.

Children stay up and run around the streets, sucking on sugar skulls. Little statues of skeletons, grinning madly and doing all manner of humorous things, can be found everywhere. Death, in Mexico, does not pall. In fact, it is to be celebrated. Dia de los Muertos is a joyous occasion, full of music and food and lights in the darkness.

There are so many cultures who enshrine. European enshrinement seems to happen largely inside or around specific places of worship, which I find fascinating but ultimately somewhat limited (pictures of one's dead mother/father/brother/etc. next to/under a household cross being a small exception). In some cultures, if there is any reason whatsoever to build a shrine, they will do so.

In Japan, for example, the Buddhists build big temples, and not so many shrines (though there are always examples out there which will prove me wrong; I'm speaking in generalities). The older and more shamanistic Shinto, however, which coexists side-by-side and simultaneously with Buddhism (in other words, sharing worshipers), is a religion that is suffused into the countryside. It is everywhere, celebrated in nature and in the shapes of the landscape, and cannot be separated out. Therefore, small signs of Shinto are everywhere: in little roadside shrines and rocks, in the paper or rice-straw ropes tied around significant trees. True, you can nd large, church-like Shinto "shrines" as well, but even they have an odd quality where the outside seems as important as the inside, and often center around an important landscape quality.

But the best are the tiny shrines, the little places that are used and loved by local people, who believe in kami, little mythical spirit beings, who live in the world with us and think and feel much as we do.

What makes a shrine really a shrine are the offerings, the attention. The loving bits left for whatever spirit dwells there. Without this care, this consciousness of its specialness, it is nothing. The mindfulness is the thing.

Bali has exquisite offerings, made with care and an asthetic eye out of flowers and leaves, and sometimes a sprinkling of rice. Bali is probably one of the most mindful places I've ever been; there is this daily routine to the beauty, the delicate and conscious handling of daily devotion. Everything, everything is carefully, beautifully done: the washing of the steps, the morning laying out of offerings, the care with which people dress. And the festival offerings are really works of art.

One of the reasons, as I said, that I love California is the intense Central American influence. There are many Day of the Dead celebrations to be had - more and more as time goes on and it becomes more ingrained into the culture. I remember the first American Day of the Dead thing I went to, a parade in the Mission District of San Francisco, years ago. I was annoyed with the way that it was politicized, probably for good reason - mourning the U.S.'s transgressions in Central America, perhaps; I was young and didn't pay enough attention. There were a lot of European Americans involved, all wearing sort of Grim Reaper attire. It was heavy and dark, and not very celebratory, and it made me unhappy that such a marvelous holiday - no, festival - could be reduced to such a grim and feeble remnant.

It seems especially reprehensible when you consider the traditional U.S.-based Central American mode of expressing political dissent: the murals. They have colors, they are intense and bright and full of life. They are not heavy, grim, or dark. They are all about empowerment and celebration. They are shrines to what should be. If you like these ideas, and if you are ever visiting San Francisco, take a walk down Balmy Alley, in the Mission district. It's a continuing tradition which is worth a visit.

Now, however, people are catching the idea of Dia de los Muertos. Not only has the cheerful nature of the holiday taken hold, but the color, the joy, and hopefully the thinking of death in a new way, has begun to infiltrate the California culture.

In Oakland, for example, there is a whole weekend devoted to the Dia de los Muertos festival, with a section of 14th street closed and stalls, bouncy castles, sugar-skull decorating for the children, crafts, candles and flowers. People who live there set up shrines. It's a Thing. It's still looking through an American end of a cultural telescope, but it's real, and, well, they're getting the hang of it. And folks love it. Children make little shoebox shrines to their ancestors in school, regardless of race. Chrysanthemums are sold on street corners.

And if you're ever driving down the road and see a small, flower-covered place - a little box full of flowers and/or toys, or a bouquet tied to a phone pole - stop for a moment and look. Because that is the place where a person died. And someone who loved that person made a special place, just for them - not only to comemmorate them, but to give their spirit some place to come, and know that it is loved.


Anonymous said...

Lovely post, H. We get DdlM here in New Mexico, too, and like you I love the different take on death and the dead.


D said...

Yet another great post. Thank you.

I seem to recall there's a nice passage about this celebration in The October Country by Bradbury. Been quite a few years since I read, but it's worth looking for.

Heather McDougal said...

Oooh! I actually haven't read that Bradbury, weirdly enough. I'll have to check it out. In fact, I've been thinking of re-visiting him for awhile, because I haven't read it since I got into a more critical (in the good sense) life-stage. I might actually catch some of the nuances this time around.

So thanks for the suggestion!

D said...

Oh, you're welcome, but thank the owner of this site - I'd never recalled reading that if not for this nice piece.

D said...

...that IS you.

I'm sorry about that. Still fact remains: it's your nice post that made me recall the novel.

Heather McDougal said...

Ha! I do that sort of thing all the time.

Anonymous said...

If you'd like to see some pics from Polish cementaries taken on the Day of the Dead, please go to:

And they try to convince the world that all cultures evolved with no interactions... Sic!


Heather McDougal said...

Wow - Beautiful, especially the ones with the candles.

It's wonderful to find these pockets of ritual...Still, the spirit (in Poland) seems different, more sober, even if the effect is the same. Perhaps it's simply the weather, but it seems people are being formal and serious, not singing and feasting so much.

Definitely worth looking at, and very lovely, thank you!