Dia de los Muertos pokes fun at death

By Helena Rodriguez: Freedom Newspapers

Mexicans are on familiar terms with death. They are undaunted by death and have no qualms about getting up close and personal with death, according to Nobel Prize-winning poet, writer and diplomat, Octavio Paz.

Paz goes on to say, “He (the Mexican) chases after it, mocks it, courts it … it is his favorite plaything and his most lasting love.”

With the two-day Mexican celebration called Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead coming up on Wednesday and Thursday, I started thinking about how other cultures in the United States today perceive death.

For starters, I cannot say that all Mexicans have this light-hearted outlook toward death. But during this Dia de los Muertos celebration, which is becoming more popular in the Southwestern United States — and even here in our area, where a big event is being planned in Lubbock — it is clear that death is actually a celebration of peoples’ lives and during this celebration, they don’t mind poking fun at death.

According to an article by Dale Hoyt Palfrey at www.mexconnect.com,

“While death is a topic largely avoided in the USA, the remembrance of deceased ancestries and loved ones is traditional among diverse cultures around the globe.”

That statement may also be a little too generalized because most Christians in the United States today have a hope in the afterlife and believe their loved ones pass on to a better place. However, our perception toward the actual image of death is generally grim and in some cases, such as the recent Terri Schiavo case, some people go through great lengths to avoid death by even relying on artificial means to prolong a life.

What exactly is Dia de Los Muertos, though? Let me back up a little.

According to Palfrey, Dia de Los Muertos is a rare mix of pre-Hispanic and Roman Catholic rituals. When Spaniards found the Aztecs observing this originally pagan holiday during the months of July and August, they moved it to Nov. 1-2 to coincide with the Catholic All Saints Day and All Souls Day. However, observances today, depending on the region, are either Christian or continue to include some elements of paganism.

People who observe the celebration in extreme form often place marigold flowers and burn candles on a loved one’s grave. They also display their favorite foods and items the person enjoyed, such as cigarettes, cigars, sweets, toys or liquor. In central Mexico, people set up picnics on the graves of loved ones.

In addition, some people purchase candy skulls made of sugar (especially made for this occasion), and inscribe the names of loved ones on them. Also, they display whimsical images of death, including comical skeleton figures. Death herself is also given whimsical names such as La Catrina, La Flaca, La Huesuda, Fancy Lady and Baldy.

I feel uncomfortable with extreme forms of Dia de los Muertos, some of which go against Catholic and general Christian beliefs. For example, I don’t believe the notion that loved ones return to Earth for a day and have a picnic with those on Earth and enjoy the things they left behind. However, I do believe that death is a natural part of life, and during situations in which death is inevitable, death should be embraced, not feared.

When I was growing up, Mom had a saying that anytime there was a birth in the family, there was sure to be a death to balance it out. I believed her because in our large, extended clan, folks were always coming and going. This theory, however, does not explain the U.S. recently hitting the 300 million population mark. While we’re having babies, we’re also staying around longer.

I think what Mom was really getting at is that life and death, both our comings and goings, are a natural part of the life process. And for those of us who believe in the afterlife, it doesn’t end there. We just move on to a different state of being. Therefore, it doesn’t hurt to poke fun at La Huesuda, the scrawny skeleton one, because the last laugh will be on her.