Day of the Dead
Do you long for “built-in” ways of remembrance for someone you love? The most common lament I hear from families is frustration over the subtle, and not-so-subtle silencing that emerges after the death of a loved one. “Don’t talk about your sorrow,” counseled a widow in a letter to my mom after the death of my father. “People don’t want to hear it.” Believing her, she privately grieved the end of a sixty-year marriage.
Also, in America’s mourning-avoidant culture, family and friends often hesitate to mention a deceased loved one for fear they will upset us. Yet, most families long to feel more freedom to speak openly about the one they love.
Perhaps that is why I found the new film The Book of Life so enchanting. Drawn from the Hispanic tradition of remembering loved ones during the Day of the Dead celebrations, Mexican director Jorge Gutierrez creates a dazzling animated musical comedy and adventure film. With gorgeous visuals, the plot encourages the importance of “The Land of the Remembered” where spirits live on as long as loved ones preserve their memory. In contrast, great sadness awaits those relegated to the Land of the Forgotten. Through an explosion of color and movement, it shows children growing in understanding that death is a part of life, and that remembering loved ones strengthens family bonds.
DAY OF THE DEAD CELEBRATIONS
I recall the first time I saw the strange sugar skulls, skeletons, and Pan de Muerto bread in bakeries while traveling in Mexico City. “What in the world are these?” I wondered. Then I learned of the Day of the Dead, which originated in Mexico and is now celebrated throughout the world on October 31, and Nov 1 and 2. This tradition gives Hispanics a yearly “built in” cultural ritual to recognize family members and friends who have died. Usually, although these vary by villages and countries, the 1st of November is the Dia de los Inocentes or Dia de los Angelitos. This day is given to remember deceased infants and children, the little angels. This also parallels All Saints Day in the Catholic tradition. November 2 parallels All Souls Day and celebrates adults who are deceased.
FESTIVE RITUALS OF REMEMBRANCE
Families plan far ahead on how to decorate graves and build ofrendas (altars) in preparation for a gathering of family and friends coming to remember and pray for those who have died. Vibrant Mexican marigolds, candles, memorabilia from the deceased, sugar skulls, favorite candies, drinks,photographs and breads all add a festive personal touch. Toys often decorate the children’s graves. It gives families a time to reminisce, picnic, party, tell anecdotes, laugh, and pray. One hope is that the deceased’s spirit will come back to visit and continue the spiritual bond in the family.
I was fascinated to see a big display of colorful Day of the Dead house decor in our local World Market this year as Halloween and Day of the Dead dates merge. My hunch and hope is that the conversations emerging from persons seeing the Book of Life will encourage all Americans to ask, “Don’t we all need more rituals that create ways of remembrance?” Learning from the natural expressions around life and death within Hispanic communities just might break the silence surrounding families that live with loss and love.
Films often shape cultural change; could this be the enduring legacy of the Book of Life?
For a joyful time of exuberant yet thoughtful entertainment, considering going to this kid-friendly film! Then, I’d love to hear your thoughts.