Healing Arts
Kara's Column > Day of the Dead

By Kara L.C. Jones
KotaPress Editor

American Halloween is just costumes and candy with no real meaning. But since the days of the Aztec people, there has been celebration in Mexico at this same time of year for Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead. It's a celebration that has evolved to include some Christian rituals, like attending mass, as part of the ceremony now. It is not a Mexican version of Halloween -- it pre-dates any silly American Halloween rituals. And I must say BRAVO to the traditions that have evolved for Day of the Dead!!

From my own experience with this celebration, I can tell you that it's the only way I've seen that humanizes death and all the long-term aspects of dealing with life after the death of a loved one. Death isn't glorified. Death isn't feared. Our loved ones on the other side are leading live parallel to what we live here-- it's a continuation-- there is a veil between here and there. And around the time of Amercian Halloween, that veil gets pulled back!

It is believed that the pungent smell of the marigold flowers-- blooming like crazy in Mexico at this time of year-- is the smell that calls the dead back to us. It is believed that the flocks of migrating monarch butterflies are the souls of the dead returning. Altars or ofrendas are built in homes and stores and on the streets during the entire month of October. These ofrendas hold photos of deceased loved ones, candies, sugar candy skulls decorated like fancy masks, candles, flowers, bread, fruit, and items that might have meant a lot to the deceased. These ofrendas can be simple and beautiful or elaborate and stunning! The grave yards are cleaned up. Individual families take care of the grave stones of their loved ones. The grave yard is decorated with light and flowers. The head stones are cleaned and made into ofrendas, too. Food is brought, music is played, and a major celebration to honor the dead happens -- starting Halloween night going on through November 2nd.

Children don't fear death. The whole culture understands the long term need to support the living who are bereaved and forever without the dead. This time of year actually *MEANS* something. Here are some links to places with more info and lots of photos:
Amazing photos and artwork and a diagram of what an ofrenda looks like. Includes recipes for day of the dead bread, too! Very colorful, interactive site-- a good representation of what the live celebration is like.
A very silly and fun animated site that gives some history and description in a short, clear, concise way.
Amazing collection of photos and essays. Lots of explanation of ofrendas and beliefs and celebration customs!
Common misconceptions about Day of the Dead
Wikipedia is always a good start to learning more!
An amazing photo journey thru Day of the Dead. I especially like the photo of all the sugar skulls-- they are all so pretty and well crafted!

Now, there are many ways to use writing and poetry as process during the Halloween season or for Day of the Dead. You find many cliches and "silly" works of writing about tricks and treats during this season. I know as a bereaved parent who painfully misses her child during this time of year that Halloween is so much more than that. It's a time of reflection and re-definition of those cliches. And all of that re-definition is part of mapping our own personal grief to try and figure out how to survive day to day. It is so much closer to the ideas of Day of the Dead rather than silly Halloween. In that light, I offer the following:

Untitled I.

by Kara L.C. Jones

Time and again the chill comes. It creeps over me, the crisp wind and the call of the whispy ghosts off the white caps of the water. Down in my bones, I feel them, porous, open, and calling for warmth from hot cider, heated blankets, heavy coats, the healing touch of my husband's hands. Yet, even when I drink all that in, even when it is soaking the marrow of my bones, I still ache from the chill. There are people who think your bones warm up again after the death of a child, but I know now that they are wrong. It has been three winters since my son's flesh and blood met with the heat of the crematorium, and I am still chilled.

Untitled II.

by Kara L.C. Jones

Ofrenda. It's such an interesting word. An altar, an offering. Fruit, bread, sugar skulls, marigolds, photos, candles, prayers, simple slips of paper with the names of a loved ones written in a shaky hand. Pungent fragrance, light of fire, migration of the monarch butterflies, all calling the dead to come home, back to the hearts of those who miss them so. Halloween. Not just snickers bars and plastic, store bought costumes. But rather, October 31st is the witching hour when the spirits of our dead children lead the envoy of souls back through the veil, lead the dance and mirth and celebration at the graveyards, remembering the earthly love of mothers and fathers, grandemama and grandepapa, all coming back together for Dia de los Meurtos, Day of the Dead.

Author Biography

Kara L.C. Jones is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University where she honed her poetic craft under the mentorship of Jim Daniels. Her poetic and non-fiction works have been included in publications such as New Works Review, PoetsWest, Real Henna, Shared Heart Foundation's "Meant To Be", LightHearts Publication's "Soul Trek", MISSing Angels Newsletter, American Tanka, Mother Tongue Ink's We'Moon, Honored Babies, Cup of Comfort series, and more. Because she refused to give her grief writing over to the control of outside editors and publishers after the death of her son, she and her husband Hawk founded KotaPress in 1999 as a creative outlet for their expressive artworks. She has been facilitating online and in-person workshops for over 10 year, including sessions offered at the International MISS Conferences, WA State Poets Association Burning Word festivals, and Course Bridge.

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