Dia de Los Muertos

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by jendoop

Halloween coincides with the Mexican festival Dia de Los Muertos (Nov 1 & 2): the Day of the Dead. I much prefer this Mexican celebration over the gory, fear-inducing holiday that Halloween has become. It is a festival with Aztec roots, that Catholic missionaries tried to eradicate without success. Now the holiday has taken on some Catholicism, coinciding with or incorporating All Saints Day.

What I like about this holiday is its overall attitude towards death. To the Aztecs life was only a dream, with the afterlife more of a reality. They didn’t fear death; they embraced it. While many aspects of Aztec culture aren’t embraceable (like human sacrifice), there are other traditions that are worth incorporating into my family culture that support the gospel.

Sister Cheiko Okasaki, former counselor in the General Relief Society Presidency and author, looked at her cultural practices in this light:

“Before you dismiss any cultural practice, think about the principle behind it, decide if this principle is one you also believe, and see if you can find a way to participate in it in a way that honors that principle.”

I think this kind of attitude can go a long way towards gleaning the best out of cultural beliefs and practices. While I am not Mexican like those who celebrate Dia de Los Muertos, or Japanese like Sister Okasaki, I can gather good from cultures beyond my own.

The celebrations of Dia de Los Muertos remind me that all people will die – there is no escape – but that should not be reason for fear. The borders between this world and the next are thin, and our ancestors are near. Much of the festival is about remembering ancestors: making altars of remembrance and spending time at the cemetery decorating graves, having picnics, and eating sugar skulls decorated with the names of ancestors. While making an altar of remembrance hits a little too close to the commandment not to worship other gods for me to participate in that practice, I can see that visiting the cemetery and even having a picnic would be a wonderful opportunity to make my belief in the afterlife a more tangible experience.

Recently, I visited a small town cemetery that is filled with my ancestors. It was an interesting experience to have with my children. At first they felt it was a little weird, but as we spent more time there most of them relaxed. I explained who I had met that is buried there, who they are related to, and any stories I could recall about them. One of my daughters was so overwhelmed by the experience that she retreated to the van, while my son focused on dates and unique markers on the graves. He was especially awed by a headstone with a handcart pioneer marker. Even within my little family we have differences in our understanding of death and the discomfort that can accompany it.

Last Sunday for the lesson in a Young Women class, parents were given the opportunity to stand and talk about their daughters. A stepmother of one of the girls walked to the front and spoke directly to her stepdaughter. She said how much she loved going to the temple, as she had the day before, because there she can feel close to her husband that passed. That is nothing out of the realm of experience for most LDS people; what was extraordinary is what she said next. She said that she also feels close to the mother of her stepchildren there. She testified that after her experiences in the temple the day before she felt that her stepdaughter’s mother loved her daughter deeply and was proud of her. What a special experience to unify all members of this family on both sides of the veil. This woman has a wonderful grasp on the thinness of the veil, eternal relationships, and the remembrances we should always retain for our departed dear ones.

For a Halloween party yesterday I dressed up as La Catrina, a character from Day of the Dead.

“The classic image and the name of La Catrina were created by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada. He was an illustrator in the late 1800′s who used the skeleton image to mock the lifestyle of rich Mexicans… In the last hundred years, many other artists have expanded on Posada’s original ideas.” (From La Catrina: Meet the Myth)

This is not an honoring of evil, but a celebration and embrace of death, the next step in our progression as children of God. The symbolisms of death and their meanings have become confused. Instead of seeing the representation of a skull as symbol of our mortality – reminding us to rely on God and prepare for the next step of our journey with him – in America we see it as evil or satanic. This is where secularism has abducted symbols which have great spiritual meaning for many cultures.

I wish we could change our thinking about death to reflect that we truly believe the teachings of Christ: we will all be resurrected!

I find it very telling that immediately after Alma asks if we have been spiritually reborn, he asks about our belief in the resurrection:

Do ye exercise faith in the redemption of him who created you? Do you look forward with an eye of faith, and view this mortal body raised in immortality, and this corruption raised in incorruption, to stand before God to be judged according to the deeds which have been done in the mortal body?

Ah, there’s the rub! When we talk about death and resurrection we inevitably think about THE JUDGMENT. That’s what really scares us, even more than sloppily makeuped vampires jumping out of cardboard coffins. In some cases I see why wicked people may fear it; what I don’t understand is why disciples of Christ fear.

A few verses later Alma says, “Behold, he sendeth an invitation unto all men, for the arms of mercy are extended towards them, and he saith: Repent, and I will receive you.”
It’s that simple. Repent and you have no reason to fear death; if you’re a disciple of Christ you are already on that path. No fear. If we are working out our salvation we have no need to fear death, and can reach through the veil with our hearts, to continue dear relationships which started here on earth.

Another valuable symbol  which was included in my costume is the butterfly. Butterflies are a major Christian symbol, or used to be. Most people do not know that butterflies are a beautiful reminder of the resurrection because of how well their life cycle shows us that changes should not be feared. The butterfly starts life as a caterpillar, a sluggish bug that eats and eats. After a short period of time the caterpillar becomes still, lifeless, and then builds its own coffin. Looking at the little cocoon pellet you’d be tempted to think the caterpillar has ended. Instead we know (because we’re taught this one point well as children) that cocoons hold something valuable and great transformations are taking place out of our sight. Then one day a delicate butterfly breaks free of the cocoon, spreads it’s intricately decorated wings, and soars to greater heights than the caterpillar could dream of.

Much like the butterfly, we will one day emerge from our tomb with wings to fly to heights we cannot now comprehend. When we look at death as just a step in this process, it is not frightening, but a doorway that we should prepare ourselves to enter. In much the same way that the caterpillar prepares for its cocoon by eating, Dia de Los Muertos reminds us through its celebration of death and honoring of deceased ancestors of what lies after.

Image credits: (day of the dead doll) Andy Castro via Compfight, (sugar skulls) Yesica via Compfight

About jendoop

Jen writes, reads, paints, walks, prays, eats and sleeps. Paul is her co-conspirator in teaching these skills to 4 children.

9 Responses to Dia de Los Muertos

  1. Gabriel G. says:

    Thank you for your insights. Because i am not Mexican, i never gave the Día de los Muertos any thought, but now i feel i can relate to it better.

  2. Paul says:

    A great peek into Dia de los Muertos. Thanks!
    Not sure I agree fully with your suggestion that it’s secularism that has caused our (typical US) view of skeletons, etc, as scary, or that we all fear the final judgement. But I really like the concluding discussion of the butterfly — very cool stuff.

  3. Bonnie says:

    I’ve always found it interesting that Halloween is the summation of just about all of our religious false doctrine: the free-for-all of malevolent spirits, a twisted resurrection, the misunderstanding of what spirits do after their mortal probation. I suppose it makes sense that people would come to gather all their fears into one celebration and then make that fun (because it’s sure human nature to have a party.) Fascinating to see All Saints Day celebrated in forms throughout the world, with vestiges of the truth of the continuation of life still in evidence.

    • Paul says:

      Bonnie, I agree with you — one of the reasons I hate Halloween (and blogged about it over at A Latter-day Voice this week…)

      I’ve been intrigued with the relationship between Halloween and All Saints Day and the relationship between Carneval and Ash Wednesday — both seem to be a release of evil prior to a cleansing. I have not studied enough to know how much of those traditions are really based in religious thought compared with convenient pairing of religious and pagan (or non-religious) practice.

  4. jendoop says:

    Paul, I see the skull used as an image of evil often – street gangs, motorcycle gangs, tattoos, Marilyn Manson… I’ll stop there as I don’t want to fill this inspiring space with such things. Image search “skull” with along with any of those things I listed and you’ll quickly see what I mean.

    Yes, this is a secular thing (secular being defined as absent of religion), removing God from our culture while retaining evil. The hijacking of sacred things is nothing new, even sacred symbols such as the pentagram have been used for evil to the point that when someone sees them in a sacred place they are confused or misinterpret them. There are pentagrams on the outside of the Nauvoo temple for example. This is a great post about pentagrams and the Nauvoo temple by Steven Reed:

    LDSSymbols.com is a great resource for the LDS interpretation of symbols. If you were to compare the popular secular interpretations of those symbols you’d have an incongruous mess of meanings. This is just one way that I see the adversary thwarting our communications and attempting to destroy or deprive us of sacred holy images and experiences in our daily lives.

    Like Steven says at the end of his post, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes strongly in the idea of ‘restoration’ or putting things back in their proper place and context. The pentagram was once an ancient Christian symbol that has only recently been hijacked; I’m glad to see the LDS Church standing by the pentagram and displaying it in a context which reveals its meaning in truth. It’s time to welcome the pentagram back to Christianity where it belongs.”

    BTW- It is only coincidence that Steven and I both used the word “hijacked”. I only looked up his article after I saw your comment here.

    • Paul says:

      Interesting thought, and I appreciate the response. But I think my question is around secularism in America. Of course as the Constantine Christian chuch was developing, there were already a host of folk and popular beliefs around myths, etc, including symbology. It’s true that in today’s world a skull has an ick factor — I certainly view it that way. Whether my view is influenced by Hollywood or medeival views of the grim reaper or the local motorcycle gang, I don’t know. I do know I’ve never been enamored of them, and I don’t need to search for images to reinforce that view. I’m not aware that the skull held any particular religous significance in Christ’s church or in the Nephite church, though I could be wrong. I just wonder in this instance if it’s hijacking an image or simply two different views of the image.
      That said, I agree that there certainly are apostate versions of holy things all around us. And things that are not of good report likely include those gruesome images so often associated with today’s holiday (which is one reason I’m not a fan).

  5. jendoop says:

    Paul, To address your question about all of us fearing the final judgment. I don’t think such extreme statements are EVER true 😉

  6. Becca says:

    My husband loves Halloween – we haven’t really discussed why, but I know that he finds skulls/skeletons fascinating. I have been noticing (with some disappointment) the decline of “haunted houses” from “fun” and “spooky” to gory and violent. It seems that the focus of Halloween these days is on the gore and violence. I’ll have to study more about Dia de los Muertos.

    Also, I absolutely love your quote from Sister Okasaki. My husband and I love incorporating wholesome traditions from other cultures that are uplifting and righteous. My favorite thing to say is “truth is truth is truth” It doesn’t matter where you find it.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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