When my brother in St. Louis e-mailed my mother over the weekend, he said he wished he’d been able to locate some blank sugar skulls so he could write my father’s name on one for Day of the Dead. I searched around on the Internet and found that we could have ordered some, or even gotten molds and made our own.
I also found a crochet pattern for a skull, and considered making one, then embroidering Dad’s name, along with the other decorative flourishes. But I realized I suffer from some kind of cultural disconnect from the whole Day of the Dead ritual.
For one thing, I just can’t write loved ones’ names on skulls. I guess Mexican culture is healthier because they robustly face the reality of mortality, bones and all. I’m not sure I could write even pets’ names on skulls. It’s not a ritual I’m accustomed to; and because of that, I guess, it makes me uncomfortable. I like the decorated skulls as motifs, and I’ve even toyed with the idea of getting some of the little Day of the Dead figurines; but I could never assign specific personas of deceased loved ones to the figures.
I think another problem specifically related to my father is that the whole idea of a candy skull with a dead relative’s name written on it would have been abhorrent to him – especially his name. And he definitely wouldn’t have been into the decorative style of the embellished skulls, all the bright colors and flowers and curlicues. (Of course, it kind of amuses me to imagine his face if he saw one of these skull tributes to him. I doubt he would have known what to make of it.)
I also thought about the ofrenda. Besides the basic things, like flowers and water and a razor, I don’t know what I’d put on the altar. He was a recovering alcoholic with cirrhosis of the liver, so any kind of booze doesn’t seem right. He gave up smoking years ago, but the heavy smoking he did for over half his life probably contributed to the stroke that killed him. Not to mention many of his favorite foods, from Big Boys to barbecue ribs to the six or seven eggs he claimed to have eaten for many a breakfast.
I think my altar will have to be mental this year. Instead of setting out ofrenda and decorating sugar skulls, I’m cross-stitching the tombstones on a Sleepy Hollow sampler I’ve been working on all autumn. As I embroider the headstones in various shades of gray, I think of Dad, and his sister Margaret, and of Auda, a family friend who passed away during October. Funny, I think I could create special tombstones for them out of something like fondant, do a really first-rate job and not feel a bit uncomfortable. Again, I guess it all comes down to culture.
Next year I’ll think ahead about making and decorating candy skulls. But not ths year. Not yet.
What is my own cultural experience with All Soul’s Day? When it fell on a school day when I was a kid, we sometimes participated in a special Mass, very somber, with a cart set in the middle of the center aisle of St. Cecilia’s and covered with a purple and black cloth with a cross on it. This was to represent a coffin. It was all very funeral-like and somber. There was nothing of a celebration about it.
I think there was something about indulgences and getting souls out of purgatory as well. I remember one year going in and out of the church during lunch period with other girls in my class. We’d been told that every time someone went to church and said a certain prayer on All Soul’s Day, it freed a soul from purgatory, so we did our darndest to send as many spirits as possible to Heaven. That was more uplifting than the leaden mourning of everyone who had ever died. And maybe, just maybe, we honored some poor dead soul in a very meaningful way.