The meal is almost ready. The white tablecloth has been laid on the table, its hand-embroidered flowers against the white background like a snowy meadow of red poppies. Colorfully painted vases that have been placed on the table spill over with bright orange and yellow marigolds, accompanied by tall stalks of scarlet gladiolas which hover at both ends like skinny old women reaching out their long arms in welcome. The piquant aroma of the marigolds combined with the lingering scent of burning incense creates an atmosphere of magic and anticipation in the dark room. Candlelight dances across the faces of the guests, who sit still and quiet in the darkness, their expressions never changing.
All over the table, the abundance of food is evident: bread that has been baked in the shape of corpses lies in plentiful heaps next to the steaming tamales in their tightly-wrapped corn husks. Candy and ripe fruit mingle with the tiny toys and trinkets that have been left on the table to please the children: a toy truck for a young boy, a favorite black-haired doll for a girl of six.
This room should be filled with excited chatter in anticipation of this spectacular meal, yet not one guest utters a word; each one of them waits patiently in silence, staring off into the candlelight. There is a feeling of time slowing down—a sense that no one is going anywhere— that there is no need to hurry.
On this night, despite the festive preparations, there will be no eating and drinking at this table, because in reality, all of our guests are only familiar faces captured in photographs; some smiling, some somber, but all of them are gone forever.
All of our guests are dead.
After all, tonight’s celebration is not really meant for them, but for us—for the family and friends who knew them and loved them and planned this elaborate celebration in order to remember them.
Tonight is the offering. It is “Dia de los Muertos”.
As a child, the idea of death confused me, because I really knew nothing about the process of death or the act of mourning. I understood that people died, but my parents, probably in their attempt to protect me, didn’t talk about it, or softened its meaning by referring to it as passing away or moving on. In my child’s mind, I saw these dead relatives passing away as if they were swooping off into outer space like in a cartoon. No one talked to me about what happens when you die. I never once saw a dead body; I never attended a funeral or memorial service, and I never even cried over the loss of someone dear to me—even after my own grandparents died I truly felt no sense of real loss. Death was just some abstract concept that I was never able to understand.
When I was in college, my father, only a few years older than I am now, died suddenly from pneumonia. I wasn’t able to grieve thoroughly and deeply after his death, because real mourning had never been modeled for me. Our family handled his death without fanfare. We had a simple gathering of friends at our home, but there was no memorial service, no funeral, no music played, and no words spoken aloud of who my dad was and what he meant to all of us. Not being able to grieve his death openly with friends and family left an emotional vacancy in my heart and later manifested in a long period of depression and suffering for me. I had lost someone so close to me, yet there was no real goodbye.
Shortly after my father died, I met and later married my husband, Rene, who is an indigenous Zapotec Indian from Oaxaca, Mexico. Throughout his life, Rene had been taught to accept the experience of death as a normal occurrence—something that was a natural part of life. Nothing about death was ever covered up for him, and so he was able to teach me that death is not something to keep quiet about, but quite the contrary—it’s a chance to talk, cry, rage, and even laugh about —but mainly, he helped me understand that it’s perfectly natural to feel the emotions associated with losing someone close to you.
Rene comes from a culture where death is not feared, but is considered an important and revered part of life. When someone dies in Rene’s hometown, the prayer vigil lasts for nine days. The corpse, in traditional dress, is laid out at home on the dining room table for everyone to touch and kiss goodbye. This is followed by a funeral procession where mourners walk alongside the pallbearers who carry the casket on their shoulders to the church. The traditional brass band plays somber music as the people cry and wail. Everyone helps out to cook and feed the large crowds that gather, and prayers are said for the dead throughout the night. Tears are shed openly; stories are told about the deceased, and most importantly, emotions are displayed without shame or misgivings.
And it’s not just when someone dies that death is revered. It’s celebrated yearly on “Dia de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead) with much celebration beginning on November first (All Saints Day).
All over Mexico and Latin America altars are constructed displaying photographs of the deceased, fresh flowers, food and gifts for “La Ofrenda” (the offering). Whimsical skeletons and skulls made of sugar are placed on the altar in order to make death seem humorous and less tragic. People actually go to the cemetery, their arms laden with marigolds and candles to spend the night and pray for their dead family members, encouraging the souls of the dead to visit. It’s a beautiful and moving tradition, but it’s one that I really hadn’t embraced until a great tragedy hit my own family.
The first time Rene suggested that we have an altar in our home was after my brother’s daughter, Gillian died after choking on a hotdog. Gillian was only six years old, and her unexpected death left me inconsolable. For the first time in my life, I allowed myself to really experience the grief and despair that comes from the death of a loved one.
Gillian’s death was a sudden, heart-wrenching loss—one that I never imagined I’d be able to face, but I had to. At times, seeing my brother and his wife suffer was unbearable, but having Gillian’s photograph on our altar helped me work through some of the pain and grief that I needed to express. The process of celebrating her on the altar helped me understand that through her death, she gave me a precious gift—the realization that I could let go of my own inflexibility and self-righteous behavior toward my brother, and try to repair our strained relationship. Ultimately, Gillian’s offering was successful—my brother and I are now closer than we’ve ever been.
Death has touched our family many more times since my daughter Isa was diagnosed with leukemia four years ago. The sad truth is that children with cancer sometimes die. When Isa was first admitted into the hospital, we became friends with Erika and Jeff Zamora, whose son Jeffrey was in the room down the hall from us, battling another form of leukemia. Isa and Jeffrey were around the same age and they became playmates. I would often run into Erika at the clinic when both children were receiving treatment at the same time and Jeffrey and Isa would be so happy to see each other.
A clear memory I carry in my mind is a time when our kids spent the afternoon in the same hospital room receiving blood and platelet transfusions. You’d think that with two kids so sick they needed transfusions, this would be a somber affair, but Jeff and Erika brought Mexican food along to share and our room became “party central.” Jeffrey and Isa happily played and watched cartoons while Jeff’s wild sense of humor kept us all in hysterics. Our boisterous laughter soon brought all of the pediatric nurses to our room to join in the fun. It was a joyful afternoon.
Jeffrey died a few months later. It never occurred to me that he wouldn’t make it—so many people were praying for his recovery—and I truly believed in my heart that he would live.
After his leukemia relapsed, he had been scheduled to have a bone marrow transplant as soon as the doctors could get him into remission again, but his little heart couldn’t handle the stronger chemo and he went into cardiac arrest. Imprinted like a video clip in my mind, I will never forget walking into the ICU, overflowing with family and friends of the Zamoras, and seeing Erika, unable to conceal the devastation and sorrow in her face as she held Jeffrey’s tiny body in her arms.
Jeffrey’s sweet smile now looks out at us from our altar, a red toy fire engine placed under his photograph. He joins the other guests: Rene’s parents, my grandparents, my two uncles, and of course, Gillian. My father’s photograph is in the center.
For years now, I’ve carried the burden of resentment in my heart toward my dad and how his struggle with alcoholism affected me as a child. The altar is a chance for me to let those feelings go; a chance to remember and embrace all that was wonderful about my dad—that the reason we live in this beautiful home is largely due to his life’s work.
Celebrating Dia de los Muertos offers me chance to be appreciative for everything I have and to understand that life sometimes offers bad experiences, and it’s all right to be sad and it’s all right to cry. It’s also all right to remember and laugh about the good times, too. We just have to accept that death is unavoidable and that’s why it’s crucial to take the time to live every moment to the fullest.
Quietly staring at the altar, as I look at the faces of those who are no longer here with us, and although I feel a bit sad, I also feel peaceful. But what I feel most is supremely thankful that I am one of the lucky ones—that Isa is alive and well, and that her photograph is not up there on the altar next to Jeffrey and Gillian.
Through some miracle of the universe, or most likely the loving grace of God, Isa is right here with me and Rene and my other beautiful children as we gather around the altar to remember our family and friends and to cry and to laugh. Hopefully, our children will continue this tradition with their own families someday.
For now, this is the moment: the table is laid; the celebration begins. We tell our stories and Isa smiles up at Jeffrey and Gillian as the candlelight dances in her eyes.