Dia de los Muertos

When my housemates and I arrived in San Antonio, Father Marty, a Jesuit priest and the associate pastor of our new home parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe, told us that our neighborhood on the West Side becomes particularly colorful twice per year: around Christmas, and around Halloween. And it’s true: makeshift ghosts, witches, and skeletons began popping up on the doorsteps of all the housing units here in the projects by early October — keeping good company with the omnipresent images of Our Lady, prominently displayed in every front window dressed in her starry tilma, her hands clasped in prayer.

My housemates and I did some Halloween decorating, ourselves, transforming our home — previously known as Casa Guadalupe — into a casa embrujada (“haunted house”) which we christened “Casa Spookalupe.” We invited several of our friends from San Antonio to our Halloween party, and were also glad to welcome the two Jesuit Volunteer Corps communities in Houston and one intrepid JV who made the trek all the way out from New Orleans. To welcome so many of our friends into our house for the first time — and to take advantage of the opportunity to drape that sticky spider web stuff over the furniture, to boot — was an occasion of great joy for all of us.

But here in the barrio there is another celebration that overshadows anything we could ever do for Halloween. Our secularized modern festival is derived from the twin Christian celebrations of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day, which in 835 were moved from May to November by Pope Gregory IV to coincide with the beginning of the ancient Celtic and Roman New Year. Now, on November 1, the Catholic Church remembers all the holy souls who have ascended into Heaven; on November 2, she remembers all those who have died without yet attaining the beatific vision — all the souls, that is, in Purgatory.

If modern men and women have difficulty believing in Heaven and Hell, then Purgatory will surely seem incredible. I’ll only allude to what the current Pope has to say about this obscure object of Christian belief (in his encyclical Spe Salvi) before mentioning how the deeply credulous culture here on the West Side deals with it:

We do not need to examine here the complex historical paths of this development; it is enough to ask what it actually means. With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell. On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbors—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfillment what they already are.

Yet we know from experience that neither case is normal in human life. For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter? What else might occur? Saint Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, gives us an idea of the differing impact of God’s judgement according to each person’s particular circumstances. He does this using images which in some way try to express the invisible, without it being possible for us to conceptualize these images—simply because we can neither see into the world beyond death nor do we have any experience of it. Paul begins by saying that Christian life is built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ. This foundation endures. If we have stood firm on this foundation and built our life upon it, we know that it cannot be taken away from us even in death. Then Paul continues: “Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:12-15). In this text, it is in any case evident that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through “fire” so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast.

However academic and essentially civilized this formulation, it nonetheless provides the essential philosophical context for the ritualized Dia de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”) observed in Mexico and in many other Latin American countries and cultures. Animated by a fervent love for their departed ancestors and a belief that death cannot sever the bond of prayer which connects us to them still, these cultures throng their cemeteries on November 2 and spend all day building shrines and altars over the tombstones, where they might place sweet bread called pan de muerto and stylized little skeletons, called catrinas, dressed in elegant costumes. When the deceased is a child, they might put little toys on the graves; when the deceased had a favorite food, that too would find a place there. (In one of my Confirmation classes one morning, a high schooler asked me, “Why do Catholics believe dead people can eat stuff?” It certainly took this Anglo quite a while to figure out what she was talking about; to hear her describe this ritual, which I’d never heard of before, and without her being able to identify it as belonging exclusively to Day of the Dead celebrations, I thought she’d mistaken some Catholic tenet for a belief in the Santa Claus who delights in finding a plate of milk and cookies laid out for him on one of his trips up or down a chimney, and scarfs the comestibles down before the children wake up.)

El Dia de los Muertos culminates with a Mass for the dead. When my housemates and I made it over to San Fernando Cemetery on Castroville Rd. at around 7 o’clock pm, although it had already gotten very dark, the grounds were still full of pilgrims (whose mood ranged from festive to somber), and the Archbishop had just begun to celebrate a Mass at the front gates. Whatever the symbolic forms the ritual has taken on, the main point of the observance is to pray for the purification of the dead, that they might take their place at the table of the aforementioned “marriage feast.” Although we didn’t make our way up past the rows of folding chairs under the Mass tent, my housemates and I spent some time wandering through rows of dark, decorated graves (and the beautiful swaying cypresses planted among them) adding our own silent prayers to the others’.

This is a sobering activity that must bring even the most reflective person into a more immediate relationship to his own eventual death. For its power to provoke introspection (to say nothing about the question of the efficacy of intercessory prayer), I think we are in need of it. In principle, it’s not unique to Mexican and Mexican-American cultures; it’s something which Catholics are supposed to do around the world (nor are various other forms of ancestor worship or invocation unique to Christianity). For instance, I remember reading, at one point in my studies in Paris, of the prevalence of this observance among the bourgeoisie of 19th century France. Much of the difficulty I’ve seen families facing here on the West Side has made me realize how lucky, and grateful, I am to have had a genuinely happy childhood; the solemnity of a practice such as this one is not a part of my unconscious imagination the way it has been for children of bygone centuries, and the way it is for many people even today whose impoverished existence introduces them to death and decay at an early age. Nonetheless, to recognize in this time of the year a cultic significance that transcends candy and costumes may be a good thing.

I am also fortunate never to have lost anyone very close to me to death; my own ancestors I prayed for that night were almost as remote from me as the people whose names were written on the tombstones I drifted among. The sharpest sting came in recollecting the people I love most, and the worrisome knowledge that someday they will die. Insofar as I thought about my own death, it was again in a rather abstracted and intellectualized way — perhaps not in keeping with the personal, familial focus of El Dia de los Muertos, because I imagined myself someday facing the ranks of the collective, rather than particular, dead. Yet this was not without its own poignancy. In particular, I found myself thinking of the searching, agnostic, deeply human words of the text of the Greek Orthodox Rite for the burial of priests, so memorably set to music by the so-called “Holy Minimalist” British composer John Tavener.

The music is here, and the text is here:

Why these bitter words of the dying, O brethren,
which they utter as they go hence?
I am parted from my brethren.
All my friends do I abandon, and go hence.
But whither I go, that understand I not,
neither what shall become of me yonder;
only God who hath summoned me knoweth.
But make commemoration of me with the song:
Alleluia.

But whither now go the souls?
How dwell they now together there?
This mystery have I desired to learn,
but none can impart aright.
Do they call to mind their own people, as we do them?
Or have they forgotten all those who mourn them
and make the song:
Alleluia.

We go forth on the path eternal,
and as condemned, with downcast faces,
present ourselves before the only God eternal.
Where then is comeliness? Where then is wealth?
Where then is the glory of this world?
There shall none of these things aid us,
but only to say oft the psalm:
Alleluia.

If thou hast shown mercy unto man, O man,
that same mercy shall be shown thee there;
and if on an orphan thou hast shown compassion,
the same shall there deliver thee from want,
If in this life the naked thou hast clothed,
the same shall give thee shelter there,
and sing the psalm:
Alleluia.

Youth and the beauty of the body
fade at the hour of death,
and the tongue then burneth fiercely,
and the parched throat is inflamed.
The beauty of the eyes is quenched then,
the comeliness of the face all altered,
the shapeliness of the neck destroyed;
and the other parts have become numb,
nor often say:
Alleluia.

With ecstacy are we inflamed if we but hear
that there is light eternal yonder;
that there is Paradise,
wherein every soul of Righteous Ones rejoiceth.
Let us all, also, Enter into Christ,
that all we may cry aloud thus unto God:
Alleluia.

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