The Day of the Dead Celebrates The Happy
Memories of Life
By Victor Landa Hispanic Link
The person who told me this long ago says he doesn’t remember where he read it or heard it. Placing it in time or space somehow doesn’t seem important. What matters is that it resonates in life the way a stone in a pond rings true in concentric circles.
“In our tradition,” he said, “people die three deaths.” The first death, he recounted, is when our bodies cease to function; when our hearts no longer beat of their own accord, when our gaze no longer has depth or weight, when the space we occupy slowly loses its meaning.
The second death comes when the body is lowered into the ground, returned to mother earth, out of sight.
The third death, the most definitive death, is when there is no one left alive to remember us.
To the casual observer, el dia de los muertos, the Day of the Dead, is at best a quaint tradition of the Mexican people, with delicious sugar skulls and cemeteries littered with bright, beautiful flowers. At worst, it is pagan superstition, a remnant of ancient cults and days long past. To the casual observer, death is the end game. But like the stone that causes ripples on the surface of the water and then sinks to become part of the pond, so death is as much a part of life as memory is to the living.
On November 1, some of us will gather in the campo santos, the holy fields, to scrub down the tombstones, tidy the grass, decorate with flowers and sit and remember. Others will build altars to the memory of those passed; a picture, a favorite dish, a drink, a toy, a cigar. Stories will be told, evoking the memory of the tio, of the abuelo, of the some dead in the war. And with the stories our dead return to laugh with us, and cry with us, and dance with us. They spring forth from our memory, our sacred obligation to keep ourselves alive, because to live is to build memories, to remember and to be remembered.
Unlike Halloween, where death wears a mask and is lived in the grotesque, the tradition of el dia de los muertos does not see death as a monster. Death is not something you run from with plastic surgery, daily workouts and fad diets. Neither is death something taken lightly or ignored out of a fear of confronting oneself. La muerte is music and fireworks, food and flowers. The only way to celebrate death is to live with courage, just as the only way to cause ripples upon the soft water is to pierce it with a hard stone.
El dia de los muertos is a celebration of life. To know this is to contemplate another reality where we live to be well-remembered, where we act to be well-evoked, where we love to be well-missed. In this sense each moment is constantly beginning. And so we sweep the tombs of our dead and build altars to our loved ones because memories need a sacrament in which to be rooted; a simple act of caring, a noble act of life. To the casual observer el dia de los muertos is almost surreal, because the casual observer is merely interested in spectacle (just as he or she understands death as happening only once). And this very well may be the point where cultural values divert. Where one who throws a stone to splash the water is satisfied with the splash, the other will sit and consider the ripples.