Thursday, October 28, 2010

Day of the Dead

Pumpkin Carving Contest
 at the 5 Points Fountain in Columbia, SC
Imagine the look on my family’s face last year when I suggested we start a new family tradition -  an annual feast to honor the dead.  Now I will tell you our children are twenty-somethings, our son married to a beautiful (inside and out) bright spirited young woman, our daughter in graduate school with a terrifically  accepting boyfriend.  My son’s left eyebrow cocked upwards as it does when he hears something a bit outlandish, but my family is rather used to this.  Over ten years ago, when I had returned from India, that Easter, in the mountains of North Carolina, we created prayer puja boats and floated them down a river.  The church nearby had just let out and the preacher eyed us bending down at the adjacent river and yes, he marched right over and questioned our actions and motives.  I, as a southern woman, was very diplomatic. My family knows me and they are good team players. This Sunday we will have our second annual feast.  You may wonder what caused me to conjure up such an idea.  Well, death has been a part of my life since I was 11 years old.  It has shaped my life in ways I never would have imaged….

We Southerners love Halloween.   It’s the occasion that marks the end of our relentless hot, humid summers.  If we’re lucky, we can finally say goodbye to the heavy moist summer air and say hello to crisp, fresh autumn breezes, sweaters, long pants, and pumpkins.

What delights you this time of year?

I delight in listening to the sound of leaves crunching beneath my feet as I walk, in opening all my windows before I go to bed, and in awaking each morning snuggled next to my husband under our cotton blanket.   We like to reminisce about the crazy costumes we’ve purchased over the years.  Anyone remember making your own costume? We think of candy and trick-or-treating. We adorn our homes and yards with witches, ghouls, skeletons, spiderwebs, and zombies. Halloween is a joyfully spooky occasion that allows us to be creative, take on new identities, and have fun!

This year, as the day light lessens and we move into more darkness, I hope you’ll also pause to remember the deeper meaning of this time year.

The 2000 year old Celtic tradition of Samhain, meaning summer’s end, celebrated the belief that at this time of year, the veil between the worlds are thin and transparent, allowing communication between the worlds.  Samhain gradually morphed into All Hallows, All Hallow’s Eve, Hallow E’en, and finally Halloween.  Remember that Hallow means “to make sacred or holy.”  The Catholic Church celebrates All Saint’s Day, and All Soul’s Day.  India celebrates Diwali, the festival of lights.  The Iroquois celebrate the Harvest of Corn and the Feast of the Dead.  Mexico celebrates a weeklong vibrantly colorful festival “The Day of the Dead."

What are all these celebrations about?

On the last day of October and the first few days of November, unconnected ancient cultures around the world have paused from daily life to celebrate death... yes, death.   These are universal timeless traditions that teach us what it is to be human.  We have lost the richness, the meaning, the value of these traditions in our hurried pursuit of commercialism. 

Along with the zany carnival aspects, the “shadow” needs a spotlight.
During the summer of 1963, my 6-year-old brother started having severe headaches. I remember the day he was admitted to Columbia Hospital. "Probably just eye strain," I was told. Well, I knew something was terribly, terribly wrong when my grandmother from Santa Monica, Calif., arrived to take care of me and my youngest brother Paul. Times were different then. Children were not allowed into hospitals, and parents did not talk to children about troubling subjects.

My brother never came home from the hospital. He died during an operation to remove a huge cancerous tumor in his brain. I was devastated and hurt and angry and silent. No one talked about "it," and "it" had all happened so fast.

How could I as a 9-year-old make sense of this? I remember crying a lot, alone in my bed at night. Time passed and the tears lessened but the deep sadness stayed.

Then in 10th grade, one of my closest girlfriends was killed instantly in a car accident. Again, no warning, no time to prepare, no time to say goodbye, no time to say sorry - and still, no one wanted to talk about "it" and my sadness etched itself deeper into my soul.

So death rooted itself deeply into my psyche. During most of my life I have thoughtfully reflected about death and life and the meaning of it all · alone. There was not a community for me to express my confusion, my anger, my questions.

Mexico gave me a community that wholeheartedly embraces death with vibrancy, thrilling explosions of color, wafting bitter sweet aromas of marigolds and spicy chocolate moles, and altars and shrines to the dead everywhere you look. It is a gloriously stunning feast for the senses.  Experiencing El Dia de los Muertos was a healing balm and ushered me towards the importance of taking the time to reflect on death, something our culture does not like to talk about.

Pondering death teaches me about living. It reminds me of the importance of quiet, of stillness, of tears, of remembering and of darkness. Death is an inevitable part of the process of living. To acknowledge what our ancestors have known for thousands of years - that this time of year the veil that separates this world from the other world is at its thinnest - and to take the time to ponder death can only enrich and enliven us as individuals and as members of a living community.

This year's fifth annual Autumn Remembrance will be held Saturday, October 30 through Tuesday, November 2 at the fountain in 5 Points.  

It will be available to the community day & night. You are invited to bring a candle, a flower, a photograph or an object symbolic of your loss and add it to our altar.   It is my hope this community remembrance will assuage and comfort while deepening your awareness and acceptance of the mysteries of life.

My Memories of  Day of the Dead in Oaxaca:
Smells of 
Pungent bitter sweet marigolds
Yeasty braided breads cooking
Spicy rich chocolate moles simmering
Smokey pine copal incense 
Candles burning

Visuals of 
Flowers, riotous and vibrant in color
Candies skulls and bones and skeletons…
Plastic table cloths, brightly patterned
Altars everywhere laddened with photographs, food, liquor, beer, cigarettes….
Graveyards filled with spend the night guests, drinking, dancing, feasting…sharing stories, poignant and real...


  1. Heidi-this is all quite stunning. Thanks.

  2. Dear Heidi, as fate would have it, my mother died last year on November 2, the day of the dead. A Mexican friend told me that the most special people die on that day. Of course, to me she was the most special, important person in my life, and no matter what day it was, her death left a huge hollow space in my being, which lately has turned into a thick, heavy blob of sadness that doesn't have anywhere to go. I have not really processed all the emotions connected to hers (and my father's) dying. I think the Autumn Remembrance is happening at a very providential time for me. You are right, we need a tangible way to mourn, a place to take our grief and to express our feelings for the ones who have left, so that we can then go on to the next cycle of our lives. Thank you for doing this.

  3. Please keep writing - community is good - thank you heidi - staci

  4. This is all just beautiful, Heidi. What a treasure you are - not just to your friends who love you dearly, but to this whole darn town.