Linda Neale's Blog

Celebrating the Day of the Dead

Linda Neale - Wednesday, October 02, 2013

     Because they occur around the same time, the Day of the Dead is sometimes confused with Halloween in modern American culture.   Unlike Halloween which involves costumes, parties, and trick-or-treating, the Day of the Dead is a very old Indo-Hispanic ceremony that demonstrates a strong sense of love and respect for one’s ancestors and celebrates the continuance of life and family heritage.  It helps us remember who we are and provides us a structure to pass on the stories of our ancestors to our children and grandchildren.  In today's modern American culture, there are few structured opportunities to honor our ancestors in this way.



Please join us in Portland, Oregon on November 1 at 7pm at First Unitarian Church as Creation Spirituality founder Matthew Fox speaks "On the Day of the Dead: Tuning into Ancestral Wisdom".  And, on November 17th, I will be offering a ceremony "Honoring Our Ancestors" in Woodland, Washington. Click HERE for more information on these offerings.

     In Mexico, on the Day of the Dead, families gather and remember their ancestors by telling stories about them and cooking their favorite foods. Gravesites and family altars are profusely decorated with flowers—especially large, bright flowers such as marigolds and chrysanthemums—and adorned with religious amulets and offerings of food. Family members enjoy picnics at the cemetery with other family and community members who are there to spruce up their loved ones’ gravesites. The meals prepared for these picnics are sumptuous, usually featuring meat dishes in spicy sauces, chocolate beverages, cookies, sugary confections in a variety of animal or skull shapes, and a special egg-batter bread (called pan de muerto, or bread of the dead). For those who celebrate the Day of the Dead, it is both an important social ritual and a way of recognizing the universal cycle of life and death.

     Today in America, family stories rarely get transmitted to the younger “plugged in” generation. Many young people today don’t even know their grandparents, who can be separated from their grandchildren by distance, culture or both.  Without the stories, young people grown up not knowing where they come from or who they are. The Day of the Dead is a focused time to honor our ancestors and tell their stories. 

     When I realized that my own nieces and nephews didn't know their histories, I decided to adapt The Day of the Dead and create a ceremony that my own family could celebrate and practice.   My extended family is no different than any other when it comes to limited family time and the demands of school and work. We are a diverse bunch spiritually, racially, and educationally. We’re a large group—I have four siblings and nineteen neices and nephews.   However, members of my generation have a strong sense of history and connection to many dynamic and creative ancestors, so I was excited at the prospect of passing the stories and history on to the next generation.  I knew it wouldn’t be easy.

     The ceremony required some modification to be palatable to most of my Christian relatives. First, the word “dead” had to go -- my mother doesn't like it.  So our ceremony became Honoring our Ancestors—a name that preserved the intention of the ceremony and encourages participants to reflect upon their lives, their heritage, their ancestors and the meaning and purpose of their existence.

    Outside of changing the name and the location of the ceremony (in a home rather than a gravesite), we kept many of the same customs and rituals.  Each participant "sponsored" an ancestor of his/her choice, which involved learning as much as possible about that ancestor, and bringing a photo and his/her favorite food to the ceremony.

     The core of the ceremony was when each sponsoring family member gave a presentation about his or her ancestor to the assembled group. I learned a lot about my uncle when he talked about his life with his schizophrenic mother. When my half-sister shared her love for her father (my stepfather), I felt old feelings of jealousy rise up, and then subside again. When my cousins shared about their mother, the family saint, everyone cried and a wave of sadness passed over all of us. My brother and I talked about our father, our mother’s first husband. I was worried that my mother would be somewhat uncomfortable having us discuss our relationship with him, and she later admitted that it had been difficult for her, but everyone shared in an atmosphere of love and respect. It was fun!  The children present listened and watched the adult tears and laughter. For some of them, it was the first time they had seen their parents, aunts, and uncles cry.

     Not all families could do this ceremony without conflict, especially when talking about the recently dead. There are some families in which unresolved issues can be sparked by discussions of the past. If this is the case in your family, I suggest sponsoring only ancestors who have been dead for over fifty years. This reduces the intensity of participants’ unresolved feelings, while maintaining the intention and focus of the ceremony.

     This version of Honor Our Ancestors has been performed with other families and with groups of unrelated individuals. It is effective either way. It is non-denominational, inclusive, and provides a vehicle for passing on a family’s culture and wisdom to the new generations—directly addressing the destruction of “family values” that political and religious leaders are so concerned with.  We will do the ceremony again on November 17th (see box above) and I welcome your participation.  If you can't make it, then try it by yourself.  There's more information and guidance available in my book, The Power of Ceremony.
     Feel free to respond below and let the readers know what YOU have done to honor your ancestors and/or celebrate the Day of the Dead.  We can learn from each other.

    

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