In Mexico, Day of the Dead, or Dia de Muertos, combines the ancient Aztec custom of celebrating ancestors with All Souls’ Day, a holiday that Spanish invaders brought to the country in the early 1500s. Day of the Dead is an explosion of color and life-affirming joy. It’s like a family reunion, except dead ancestors are the guests of honor. Revelers don funky makeup and costumes, hold parades and parties, sing and dance and make offerings to lost loved ones.
Sure, the theme is death, but the point is to demonstrate love and respect for the deceased. While there may be occasional Day of the Dead celebrations in the United States, we generally don’t have an explicit, universal acknowledgement of those who have passed away.
All Souls Day, on Nov. 2, is primarily celebrated by the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches and a few other Christian denominations. The Anglican Church is the largest Protestant church to celebrate this day. Often overshadowed by the two days preceding it – Halloween (Oct. 31) and All Saints Day (Nov. 1) – All Souls Day barely gets the kind of attention garnered by Day of the Dead in Mexico.
I was thinking about this and wondering about other ways folk in our part of the world honor their ancestors. A post on social media fed into my thinking. A friend posted a meme about loving your life and telling people you love them because we’re going to die and no one is going to remember a thing we did.
Another friend responded by writing, “The pastor of my church recently asked people to raise their hand if they knew their great-grandfather’s name. Then he asked if they knew their great-great-grandfather’s name. Almost 100 percent of the congregation said no, and then the pastor said, ‘Within two to three generations, no one will know who you were or remember anything you did.’”
That was an unsettling thought. I have no idea if the celebration in Mexico assists that population in better remembering, but it seemed to me if there is some kind of ritual or celebration connected to ancestors, it would certainly help. So I asked around to find out what, if anything, my friends did to acknowledge their deceased relatives.
Teresa Borden, who teaches Spanish at Columbia College, said, “Because of my experiences in Mexico and the fact that I teach Spanish and include information, videos and reflection opportunities for students, I have created an altar honoring the dead in my life, though it’s not a regular custom or tradition from my own early life.”
Julia Rhodes, the owner of KleenSlate, lost her poet father earlier this year. When I learned of Bob Rhodes’ passing, I took a volume of his poetry off my shelf and went out to the porch swing to read. Bob’s family is just beginning to shape their memorial ritual.
“We have a cabin up in the Pecos Mountains of New Mexico,” Julia said. “When my father died, my brother built a mailbox there so we could send my dad letters. We call it Letters to Pop. My brother will gather the letters and keep them in a box at the cabin. Every year we plan on gathering together and opening the letters and sharing them with one another.”
Rhonda Goodson’s approach includes decorative mementos similar to the creative offerings in Mexico.
“I make wreaths for different seasons (of grief or feeling) for my dad and brother,” she said. “I made one from balloons that I put in our hallway during their birthdays, and one of black felt flowers for the moments I feel heavy grief (in the summer months, which is when they died. But, sometimes I keep the black wreath up longer). And, a third wreath includes flowers I made from my dad’s old handkerchiefs. I found the process of making them very therapeutic, and I enjoy having different wreaths for different times.”
Connie Corcoran shared various ways she and her family acknowledge their departed, beginning with keeping a living memorial to her mom.
“We built an apartment behind our garage for my mom,” Corcoran said. “She only used it for a few months before she was hospitalized repeatedly and eventually died. The apartment is much as she left it, with her favorite pictures of her children on the wall and dresser. Her bathroom still has her favorite decorative soap dish, a bath salt jar and glass ring box. Her spinet desk is in the sitting room with her last pair of eyeglasses in one pigeonhole. It all makes for a cozy guest cottage and the rest of the time it makes a comfortable writing studio for me.
“Mom’s birthday was on Halloween,” Corcoran continued. “The month begins with my deceased brother’s birthday, and then my deceased Dad’s. Sometime during October, I visit the cemetery and their graves in Mokelumne Hill. Last weekend, my brother and our spouses went to redo the gravesites with a fresh layer of weed block and red bark.”
“My entire life here is actually a commemoration. Our large extended family lived on Highway 26 between Moke Hill and Glencoe from 1948-1959. We built our own houses, very crude ones, and one survived the Butte Fire. I moved to Tuolumne County in 2000 because it was close to family. All of my early writing – a few stories and poems and two books – are about that family and that life.”
Each of these people expressed the many shapes that remembering takes as altars, grave tending, memorials, creative mementos and writing. I took part in another kind of remembrance last weekend during dinner with friends at Tallulah’s. We were looking at the wine list and I asked if anyone had ever had the Gianelli Vineyards Vermentino. One of my fellow diners said, “I just read that the owner of Gianelli’s winery died. I can’t remember his first name.”
Another friend pulled out her smartphone and Googled the obituary. “It’s Ron Gianelli,” she reported. Then she read how Gianelli purchased the 53 acres of land in the 1980s and later transformed it into his namesake vineyard and winery. For a while, he sold the grapes, until 2007, when he hired Chuck Hovey to be the winemaker and produced the Gianelli label’s first wine called Vermentino.
We ordered a bottle and toasted, “To Ron,” each time we filled our glasses and a few times when we were just taking sips. We didn’t know the man, but we enjoyed the fruits of his life and we said his name aloud again and again.
Perhaps Ron’s great-great-grandchildren won’t remember his name, but we paid our respects, as I’m sure people around the country celebrate the deceased each day, if not on one particular day of the dead.
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