The Days of the Dead: A Celebration of Life

The best explanation for the Days of the Dead that I ever heard came from my friend Virgil Elizondo. In San Antonio all you have to say is Father Virgil, and everyone knows who you’re talking about. For those not from here, he’s a Catholic priest, but more so. He’s an author, a teacher, and one of our city’s most respected spiritual leaders.

He put it this way: In our culture we die three deaths. The first death is when our bodies cease to function, when our eyes no longer hold a presence.

The second death is when our bodies are returned to mother earth, and we can longer see it.

The third death, the most definitive death, is when there is no one left alive to remember us.

That, in essence, is the Days of the Dead. It’s a remembrance that looks fatalistic but is in reality a celebration of life. In our celebrating, in the building of altars(which are not altars at all, but offerings), we conjure the memory of those passed, welcome them, and in conjuring them we bring them back to life.

And it’s also a celebration of renewal. It comes from the idea that in order for something new to spring forth, something else must die. Depending on your perspective, death is the beginning of the cycle of life. We are here because those who came before us are not. We live today because yesterday is dead. Every moment contains that potential.

So of course, it’s a celebration!
This video from Oaxaca, Mexico, is a perfect example of how death should be properly celebrated.

Go ahead and dance in your chair, or stand and dance, it’s OK.

Maria Diaz put it well in “Today, far from an occasion for curious onlookers, traditions associated with the Day of the Dead reflect the Mexican belief in the duality of life and death. While they mourn and miss their dead loved ones, they also believe that death is just an extension of life. It’s part of a natural progression, not an end. The dead continue to exist and return annually to visit their loved ones. Many of the customs, such as home altars and cemetery vigils, are to help them find their way and to welcome them home.”

The Travel Channel did a good video about the celebration. It’s a cursory sketch, but it hits the main points.

[Image by: Hadley Paul Garland]

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