Dia de los Muertos

By the Rev. Doug Earle

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It was October 30, 1970. My (then) fiancé, Mary, and I, along with our friend, Jill, left Mexico City in my 1965 V.W. Beetle, heading to Oaxaca for a long weekend.  The drive was long and slow, and we were still a couple of hours away from our destination when dusk fell. We drove on and began to notice small bits of what looked like confetti blowing across the road.  The confetti got thicker the further we drove, until finally it was a blizzard, at which point we discovered it wasn’t confetti at all, but petals of cempoalxochitl, the orange-colored marigold, blowing out of the beds of dozens upon dozens of fully laden lumbering dump-trucks. 

It was dark when we came to the outskirts of Oaxaca, and we began to notice wisps of smoke blowing across the road. The smoke got thicker and thicker as we drove, then abruptly stopped.  We suspected the smoke was from fields being burned for planting, but this smoke wasn’t as acrid as we normally encountered in our travels. It was not unpleasant, almost sweet.

 The next morning we began exploring and found the source of the smoke and the reason for all the flowers. We had driven through a large cemetery that spread over acres on both sides of the highway.  The cemetery was alive and buzzing with activity – entire families were camped out there, decorating the graves with elaborate designs made of the cempoalxochitl petals. There were braziers set up from which clouds of copal incense rose. Beeswax candles burned everywhere, and picnics went on right there amidst the graves.  Children were playing, people sang songs; it was a veritable fiesta!  We had, we discovered, come to Oaxaca on one of the most important feasts of the year. We’d arrived on the day of preparation for Dia de los Muertos—Day of the Dead—a three-day holiday spanning the eve and day of  Todos Santos (All Saints) and Dia de los Difuntos (All Souls). Reminders of death and life after death were all over the town, in every market, store and home. It was a life-changing event for this gringo who was used to the rather sterile way death was treated north of the border. Here was life in the midst of death, being celebrated with color, food, laughter.  I’d never seen anything like it before.

 The next year, in married students housing, Mary and I put up our first home altar around day of the dead, decorated with cempoalxochitl, lit with beeswax candles, sugar skulls bearing the names of a few family members who had died, and the anise-flavored bread that appears around that time.  It was the first of our home altars that we’ve had over our 39 years of marriage, and over the years the number of loved ones we remember has grown to include grandparents, parents, our son, beloved professors, and a host of pets.  When the altar is up, the house feels different, somehow.

It seemed only natural that the first All Saints I celebrated at St. Paul’s, San Antonio, should have an All Saints’ altar. We set it up in the parish hall, hoping the food-bank recipients from our community might get involved and participate. That never happened, so after a couple of years we moved it into the chapel area of our church. It is a simple table, decorated with bright flowers, candles, and photos of our faithful departed.  The church always feels fuller with the tangible reminders of Jim, Amparo, Mildred, Hal and others.  The great cloud of witnesses feels very near, and confirms what we pray in the Eucharistic preface for the Burial of the Dead: “life has changed, not ended.”

The Rev. Doug Earle is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San AntonioTX.

This article is from the fall/winter issue of Reflections magazine. To read the entire issue, click here.

 Art for this article was provided by Terry Gay Puckett. Terry Gay has won numerous awards for her work, including being selected Artist of the Year 2009 at the San Antonio Art League and Museum. See more of Terry Gay’s work at www.terrygaypuckett.com  




What is Dia de los Muertos? Translated to English, this is “The Day of the Dead.” In actuality, Dia de los Muertos is two days spent in honor of the dead. The first day celebrates infants and children who have died. This group is believed to have a special place in heaven, and they are referred to as “angelitos” or little angels. The second day is in honor of adults who have passed away. While Americans shy away from talking about death, our Mexican counterparts embrace it.  Learn more about the customs at http://www.holidayinsights.com/other/losmuertos.htm.

In Mexico, it is believed that the spirits of the dead visit their families on October 31 and leave on November 2. City streets, particularly near cemeteries, are filled with papel picado (brightly colored tissue paper flags) flowers, and candy calaveras (skulls and skeletons).  For more information on the customs surrounding this day, visit this website,  http://www3.niu.edu/newsplace/nndia.html.

More than 500 years ago, when the Spanish Conquistadors landed in what is now Mexico, they encountered Aztec natives practicing a ritual that seemed to mock death; one the indigenous people had been practicing at least 3,000 years. It is known today as Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.  For more information on the history, traditions and symbology of this ritual, visit http://www.azcentral.com/ent/dead/articles/dead-history.html.

  Make your own Dia de los Muertos altar at the Smithsonian Institute – http://latino.si.edu/DayoftheDead/ then enter the theater.

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