Day of the Dead

As a child, it was never too clear to me if the dead came back to life for this festival, or if we, the living, became temporarily dead. The rituals included decorating the foreheads of sugar skulls and tombstones with our own names, as we playfully blurred the lines between where life ended and where death began.

By Catherine L. Schweig

In the land I was raised, we invite the deceased to move among us once a year, on this very day, also known as Dia de Los Muertos, or The Day of The Dead.

Every autumn, Mexico is decorated with delicate paper flags threaded together as colorful reminders of the fragile threshold that divides this world from the afterlife. I have fond memories from my childhood of walking under them as they flapped precariously in the chilly breezes that threatened to rip them. The sound they made was said to hide the whispers of the deceased calling out to us.

These bright pink, orange and purple flags made of papel picado were usually decorated with skeletons, carefully chiseled into the tissue paper, bearing phrases that celebrated our immortality like “Amor Eterno” or “Eternal Love.” For love—they proclaimed—outlives even death, braiding together the realm of the living with the realm of the dead…especially this time of year, when the natural light dims and the graveyards come alive.

From the rooftop of my childhood home, I watched the hills of San Bernabé flicker with candlelight as cemeteries swelled with anticipation and excitement. Every tombstone was lovingly adorned in ways that would help guide the spirits back. The offerings would include the deceased favorite dishes, incense and live music, as the dead became guests of honor at the party.  

As a child, it was never too clear to me if the dead came back to life for this festival, or if we, the living, became temporarily dead. The rituals included decorating the foreheads of sugar skulls and tombstones with our own names, as we playfully blurred the lines between where life ended and where death began.

The first to attend the Party of the Dead, are the deceased children, for the strongest lures are made of a mother’s love. Beginning at midnight, on October 31st it is believed that families are reunited for 24 hours with children they had lost. Over the next two days the child-spirits are followed by the spirits of the deceased adults, summoned with the help of elaborate altars meant to lure them, often displaying their favorite foods.

MARIA CALLS/AFP/Getty Images

The delicious scent of anise baked into the Pan de los Muertos, or “Bread of the Dead” is haunting: sweet loafs whose dough is shaped to look like bones. Some are braided into circles to represent the cycle of life and death, or decorated with sugary teardrops as a way to sweeten the sorrow of grief.

I always loved accompanying my mother to the bakery on Mexican festival days and admiring the strong women who carried oversized bushels of freshly picked cempasuchil—or wild marigolds—in their shawls, while balancing toddlers on their hips. Like their Aztec ancestors, they had faith that the bright, orange blossoms would draw in the dead with their strong scent. These flowers had healing properties that, traditionally, could have only come from the powerful afterlife.

Altars of offerings were built in levels representing the universal elements the soul had to traverse to reach the afterlife. Like the chakras, there were seven levels in total. Large arches made of flowers rose from each altar representing the river believed to divide the temporary realm of existence from the eternal one.

Aztec mythology depicted this river as a stream of blood in which fearsome jaguars swam. Once a year, on The Day of The Dead, the river turns to flowers, making it effortless to cross. I spent some of my childhood curiously searching for this river: looking for easy entrances into whatever existed beyond this life, for I wanted to meet with my deceased friend Monica under the streetlight outside our homes, and play tetherball with her, like we used to when she was alive.

Unlike the Greek, Hindu, Buddhist and Egyptian cultures, which depict the god of death as male, the Day of The Dead is presided over by a female goddess known as Mictecacihuatl, or “The Lady of The Dead.” It is she who grants the passage to infinite life, and this time of year, Mexico City explodes in her colorful, skeletal effigies.

Along with fanciful paper maché skeletons that appear to be enjoying themselves, “The Lady of The Dead” is found around every corner, in the decorations around the city, and as the citizens of Mexico themselves, who dawn her disguise, making it impossible to tell who the real Mictecacihuatl is. So on The Day of The Dead you never know if the people you run into on the street are dead or alive, as partying spirits are everywhere!

To this day, graveyards excite me. They trace flickering lines between the animated bones in my body and the ones that decompose under the earth, inside coffins. They remind me that my stay here is limited and that the time of my exit is a complete and absolute mystery. If I align my life with love, seeing my name carved into the tombstones shouldn’t terrify me.

We blur the lines between life and death anytime we chose to identify with that part of us that continues to exist after our bodies become corpses. We wade in the river of flowers that separates us from the afterlife, befriending our own fearsome inner jaguars, anytime we chose to connect with the inextinguishable spark of life and love that flows through us all, and animates the entire universe, threading all atoms together.

Every autumn I feel old parts of myself, and my life, dying. Sometimes I don’t realize this until struck by the sudden grief that comes with the prospect of burying them. I float through the catacombs of my consciousness taking inventory of expired wounds from my past, and of those that still haunt me; ones I’d like to descend on like frost sucks the green out of grass on cold mornings, or the “Lady of The Dead” sucks the life out of the dying. For, death means progress, she says. Death indicates dynamic evolution.

Death is the shadow cast by the light of life itself. This season invites us celebrate this paradox, for we need not fear the shadows.

 

 

Catherine L. Schweig is an artist, mother, free spirit, and Bhakti Yoga practitioner of over 30 years. As a former contributing editor of Integral Yoga Magazine, in 2006 she cofounded ‘The Secret Yoga Institute’ with her life partner, Graham. Passionate about inspiring women to honor their voices, Catherine started ‘Journey of the Heart Poetry Project’ in 2012. Goddess: When She Rules (Golden Dragonfly Press, Dec. 2017) is fourth in a series of anthologies to emerge from it. Catherine also produced the first edited volume of poems by contemporary women from the Bhakti tradition titled Bhakti Blossoms (Golden Dragonfly Press, August, 2017) Her relationship with the Goddess Radha and Nature are at the heart of her spiritual journey. She lives in Virginia where she also makes vegan, Waldorf-style dolls. You may reach her on Facebook or e-mail her: catherine@secretyoga.com

 

Photo: provided by author

Feature photo: (source)

Editor: Dana Gornall

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