growing up, my school had an annual día de los muertos celebration, where we set up an altar, a fake cemetery and everything. I’ve was always fascinated by the holiday and have a great deal of love and respect for it. I think it is just the most beautiful tradition, and such an affirming way to deal with death and those we have lost: to celebrate the fine line between the living and the dead, to speak the name of your dead, to take pause to honor and think about those special to you who have moved on into the next world.
a few years ago, I went as la catrina (see above) symbol and personification of día de los muertos, for halloween:
earlier this year, I even bought a dress printed with dressed-up skeletons for the holiday, which I am excited to wear for the first time on monday.
I am particularly obsessed with the line between the living and the dead, with death itself, and the beauty of the life cycle. always have been—I’m not morbid, I am just a scorpio to the core (which means my tarot card is the card of death, which is actually a very lovely card, representing rebirth and regeneration, the shedding of what is no longer needed.) in the fourth or fifth grade I read “romeo and juliet” for the first time and remember with astonishing clarity (I have a pretty poor memory, actually, just ask my sister) just how deeply it struck me. it did not make me sad, but it punched me in the heart with the profound gravity of love and death, and I just thought it was the most wonderful and tragic and beautiful thing ever. I remember even trying to explain this feeling to my mother, who subsequently became a little worried about me (but I guess when your 11 year old tries to tell you how beautiful the story of two young lovers dying for each other is, that’s a totally logical response) and we had to have a little chat. what a sweet mom.
occasionally I’ll drink too much wine and go on what I’ve dubbed one of my “death rants” (usually to my poor darling, E, who constantly has to endure my nutty cosmic ramblings) where I go on and on about how amazing the cycle of birth and death is, how interesting the process of decay is in our world and how much we rely on it, how wonderful it is that nature wastes nothing and how the first law of thermodynamics always stands true (energy being never created nor destroyed, simply transformed and re-purposed)… etc, etc. none of this is an attempt to intellectualize or lighten the sadness and tragedy that death in our lives can be—the death of a loved one is always absolutely crushing, a wound from which we never fully recover—just a total sense of wonder about the cyclical nature of life and death. I love visiting cemeteries, and have my own little wacky customs that go along with those visits. recently I read about the jewish tradition of leaving a stone at the grave of a loved one at each visit–I just love that. it makes so much sense to me, and also reminds me of the piles of rocks left by hikers and backpackers along hiking trails the world over. when I was very young and on a wonderful backpacking trip in alaska, I loved the moments where we’d find those piles, they were so reassuring but austere.
one of my favorite poems deals with this exact subject matter. it is “peculiar fascination with the dead” by brenda marie osbey, former poet laureate of louisiana. I not only had not only the great honor of meeting ms. osbey a few years ago (and a more fabulous person you’d be hard-pressed to find), but I had the pleasure of hearing her read this poem, which absolutely brought me to tears it was so wonderful. it is a very long poem, but the first stanza is what sticks with me the most (note: basin, canal, valence and esplanade are names of streets in new orleans):
“light candles to honor the dead.
set flowers on the altars of the dead
which must be raised in your home.
wear the memory of the dead plainly
so anyone looking will see
how the decent do not forget.
speak of the dead
as though you thought they might hear
from the adjoining room.
keep mourning portraits
always about your home.
marry memory to the dead.
put silver coins in the corners of your rooms.
pray for the dead.
go into tombed cities
along basin, canal boulevard, valence and esplanade;
carry flowering plants
bits of brown paper
the burdens of what time you have left
to honor the dead
as they ought to be honored.
live among your dead,
whom your have every right
that last line in particular absolutely slays me: live among your dead,/ whom you have every right / to love. damn, ms. osbey. as we say in new oreleans, “yeah, you right.” so striking.
I set up a small altar in my home every year in celebration of día de los muertos, and while I’ve gotten some raised eyebrows over the years for this (I am not of Mexican ancestry nor am I religious), it’s a very personal and solitary annual tradition of mine that I very much enjoy. I have been setting up my altar today, after a trip to the florist this morning to get my hands on some marigolds, the traditional flowers of the holiday. here is my altar from last year:
as I set up the altar, I’m enjoying the fond memories of those whom I have lost, and those who I never even knew but I feel in my heart. I try to keep it positive, to remember the happy times and call up my feelings of love for these dearly departed people. many members of my family have passed in the last few years, and I especially am feeling for them right now.
with this in mind, I have been going through the stack of letters I have from my sweet grandmother, who passed away last year. I miss her a lot, especially at this time of the year, as she would usually visit us in october and really loved halloween—we’d always carve pumpkins, and she even helped with my costume some years (check out the following stunner, where I don a particularly terrifying wig):
and it is so nice to have her letters, to see her handwriting and re-read her lovely thoughts and stories. in her memory, I present some very sweet gems of southern grandmotherly wisdom and general adorableness (these are pulled directly from her notes and letters):
“remember that southern belles are frills and lace but have petticoats of iron.”
who still speaks like that! so very sweet.
“hope your easter was bright and beautiful like you are. I dyed eggs tonight, I love to have them, just because they are pretty.”
she, like me, appreciated beauty for beauty’s sake.
this letter is from right after she had her name changed back to her first married name/family name:
“sure was glad to get your note about my name-change. I feel so good with the ketchum name back after 33 years with a name that I wasn’t too proud of… I had to go before a judge to make it legal. it was very interesting and the judge was very friendly. he let me sit in the witness chair, as he saw me with a cane. he had a cane also, he had fallen on our ice (during the ice storm) and broke his leg. we had a lot in common to talk about. ha. so I am legally a ‘ketchum’ hooray!… familys are so important, and you are a big part of mine. I brag about you a lot to my friends, and carry a picture of you in my purse, so I can whip it out to show what a beautiful granddaughter I have… I’m glad you are doing well in school. love you honey, granny gen.”
“you are special people in my life. I love you forever + ever.”
“I’m doing fine and had such a great get-together at village creek, wish you could have been there. I cooked a soul food meal. we had black-eyed peas, cornbread, slaw, corn on the cob, creamed potatoes and for dessert bread pudding. we had eleven people. so much fun!”
this note is my favorite:
“to my little shadow in louisiana: I was glad to hear from you and so proud of you for getting a job and going to school too. I bet the jewelry shop is fun. I worked one summer in a 5 & 10 cent store after I graduated from high school. that was fun and I loved selling stuff. later I worked as an assistant beekeeper in a wholesale grocery. I worked until I married (at 18 yrs) and was 7 months pregnant, then I stayed with my mom and dad while my husband served in the army in the philippines for 2 years. not the best way to start a marriage, but I don’t regret any of it… I’m glad to have a granddaughter who remembers me in her prayers. I sure remember her in mine. I pray that you will be safe and healthy, and be able to make your grades, and know that you are loved. drop me a line again soon, I love it. granny g.”
(see? I am destined to keep bees!)
during this time of remembering those we have lost, I hope everyone takes time to think of those departed who are dear to them. we love you and miss you.