Celebrating Day of the Dead
by Kara L.C. Jones

Along the way of my grief journey, I have come to appreciate Day of the Dead as an "opening" to the holiday season in a way that includes my son Dakota who died in 1999. Now there are some who don't understand Day of the Dead and mistakenly consider it Satanic. Or they misuse this time of year to say to bereaved people, "Well, Day of the Dead is the only appropriate time for you to grieve, and after it, you don't get to mention your dead loved ones again at Christmas." But this holiday is the antithesis of Satanic AND it does not replace grieving that might happen on any other day of the year.

Throughout my life I knew about Day of the Dead as a celebration that started at the beginning of October. We would make an ofrenda (altar) on a table top in our house. On the ofrenda would be photos of those we loved who had died. Marigold flowers, fruit, candies, candles, sometimes little notes and letters, and maybe toys if the deceased had died as a child. I knew that it was believed that the spirits of the children who died would return first on Halloween -- making the generic, candy driven, American Halloween a LOT more meaningful to me. And that the spirits of those who died as adults were thought to return on November 1 & 2. But I didn't know more than that within my own practice and celebration of the holiday.

Since Dakota died, I have looked into the traditions much more. My ofrenda now includes, not only my great-grands and grandparents who have died, but also my son and the other babies in our family who have died. The idea that on October 31st, the spirits of our babies return, dressed up, dancing and celebrating, has made the whole facade of American Halloween bearable for me. I used to just break up seeing all the kids dressed up, knowing my Kota wasn't here. But with Day of the Dead in mind and heart, instead of the shallow Halloween, I could imagine my little one here celebrating with all these other kids.

Also, part of my discovery was that very Catholic and other Christian oriented families in Mexico celebrate this holiday. It is very much a part of some religious traditions and not considered Satanic for a moment. Those happy skeletons, dressed up, celebrating -- those are our loved ones returning to visit for Day of the Dead. Those are the artistic expressions of what the spirit of our loved ones might be doing now.

There are many photo books and web sites on the Net that show another huge part of this holiday that is completely missing here in America -- unless you are in some South Western areas. The ofrendas are moved from the home to the cemetery where our loved ones might be buried. I'm talking about whole, entire COMMUNITIES camping out at the cemetery for two days!!! They clean the sites, they decorate them, they put up lights and candles, they bring food and music. It is a huge celebration. It is an entire community acknowledging that grief and loss don't have "closure" as so many American professionals like to promote. Our relationships, our love for our deceased family and friends continues! It does not just end at the moment of death.

So I encourage you to check out this holiday yourself. I don't mean that we should just co-opt it and Americanize it into some consumer holiday. I mean really look at the traditions. Read about it. Celebrate diversity by having your family honor this holiday in addition to Halloween. Learn about ofrendas. Make one in your home. Grow marigolds in the summer just for this celebration. Learn to make sugar skulls -- making and decorating them is a great and fun activity for kids. Open your heart and mind to the ways that the "normally dreaded" holiday season can actually INCLUDE YOUR WHOLE BEING! You can be in the midst of the holidays AND honor your feeling of grief at the same time. One does not have to exclude the other.

Here are a few great links I've explored. Check them out for yourself:

This is an AWESOME site with ideas and recipes and even supplies for doing sugar skulls, chocolate skeletons, paper banners and more. Really great resource.

That same site also has great books and videos available -- if you are a school librarian or are homeschooling, then this might be a great resource for you to find learning materials.

Through one of the Arizona newspapers, this awesome site is offered year round to teach about the history and to share photo essays of celebrations in Mexico and Arizona. They even have epostcards available for free that you can send to people -- great for sending invitations to folks who might want to join you for an art making day to make your sugar skulls!

Awesome photos of whole cemeteries decorated and lit with candles and lights in celebration -- amazing!!

About the Authors
Kara is a freedom fighting guerrilla artist who has recently taken to henna as a solace and form of expression. Check out her new site at: HennaHealing.com

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