Dia de los Muertos and the Power of Ritual

Trick or treat! Is there no better ritual in the entire world, then running around at night in a fabulous costume, the streets belonging to the children and the children-at-heart, openly asking for and receiving yummy candy? Probably, but I can’t think of any right now, at least no ritual as all-inclusive as this.

We humans love our rituals. They speak to all our senses: to touch, to sight, to scent and taste. They make whatever the ritual is about more real, more tangible…more embodied. Any transition we make, including those forced upon us, becomes more manageable once we allow ourselves to go all in, immersing ourselves in the process not only cognitively, but physically and emotionally as well.

Nowhere is ritual more present across all cultures than in how we deal with death. In my last blog, I spoke of how many cultures embrace that broad marginal area where the living and the living-in-bodies-no-more coexist. In this, I’m interested in how this most difficult of transitions, death, is served by ritual.

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, reminds us of the inevitable in sometimes delightful, beautiful ways. Images of people in the midst of life, getting married, having families, buying and selling at the market, are accompanied by skeleton faces on all the humans. We are all alive in this world, and someday we won’t be. Hardly tragic, it instead normalizes our mortality, bringing it into the mundane.

Alters, though, are my favorite! Candles, incense, personal artifacts, writings. These all can appear on or around a small table, representing the person, or, as below, the community gone. This example particularly touched me. Last Spring, a terrible fire swept a woodsy community outside of Colorado Springs, and many old homesteads were lost, along with the small supportive communities that had formed in pockets, developed over many generations. At the Botanical Gardens, I found this table set up to not only mark the loss, but celebrate the communities that were.
After a loss, we sometimes are afraid to talk about the lost loved one, but as one who has worked many years with grief and who has lost others, myself, it heals the heart to remember, and to delight in what was beautiful, terrible, funny, profound. So find your ritual, even explore setting up an alter. And don’t be afraid to savor the sweetness in the person or thing that is gone.

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