I admit I’m envious of those who grew up with traditions surrounding Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Brightly decorated skulls, picnic visits to graves of deceased loved ones, colorful altars of tribute and remembrance, skull candies—these are a much livelier way of commemorating the deceased on November 2. I admit sometimes the skeleton figurines of different occupations, and even dogs and cats, seems a little gruesome, but the skeletons always look so cheerful.
When I was growing up in the ’60s, our celebration of All Souls Day was strictly church-oriented. Basically there was a funeral mass, with a table wheeled down the center aisle of church and covered with a black cloth with a cross to represent a coffin. Tall black and silver candlesticks lined the coffin, and the priest dressed in purple.
The “coffin” remained in place all day, and we were encouraged to pass in and out of church , staying long enough to recite a specific prayer that granted a plenary indulgence to some poor soul being purified in Purgatory. In other words, we could spring a deceased individual, possibly a loved one, from the fires of Purgatory by saying this prayer, and we were on a mission to free as many souls as possible. (In the teaching of the day, at least at our school, Purgatory was regarded as a place just slightly less tormenting than Hell, similarly a place of fire, but temporary.)
The idea of passed-on loved ones being trapped in a spot even worse than an airport boarding lounge without a bathroom wasn’t a pleasant thought, and the day-long funeral crept in at the edges of the mind so All Soul’s Day seemed depressingly bordered in black, like a prayer card passed out at a funeral or the old-time letters bringing news of someone’s death.
I much prefer the idea of picnics, decorated sugar skulls, colorful flowers and candles, and leaving food out for the souls of loved ones. I like to think of those souls being free enough to move around, not held indefinitely waiting to be purified enough to enter Heaven.
NUDGE: Do you have a death-related custom that you love or abhor? It doesn’t have to be one related to religious beliefs or one you grew up with. In adulthood, on the anniversary of someone’s passing, perhaps you get out the photo album and relive various times. Or maybe you have a drink in memory of the deceased.
Perhaps you know of a more macabre tradition. (I recall my grandmother telling me she heard about a woman who kept her husband’s ashes on her vanity, and every day she’d comb a little of his ashes through her hair.) Or maybe you just don’t get into things like putting flowers on graves. Explain why.