Lessons From Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead painted bowl
(photo by Bob Sessions)

(Sermon by Lori Erickson at New Song Episcopal Church in Coralville, Iowa, on November 3, 2019)

 

When I saw on the preaching roster that Jane had scheduled me for All Saints Sunday, I was thrilled. After all, this is sort of my own personal holiday these days, because my latest book, as perhaps you know, is about places that have helped me come to terms with mortality. So this Sunday when we honor the saints and the faithful departed is a natural fit for my interests.

Today is part of a constellation of holidays relating to the dead: Halloween, of course, but also Day of the Dead, a Mexican festival that’s becoming much more well-known in the United States. If you’ve seen the Disney movie Coco, you have a sense for the vibrant colors and rich cultural meanings of this holiday. And here’s a sign that it’s become a full part of American culture: there’s now a Day of the Dead Barbie.

Day of the Dead blends pre-Columbian traditions with the Christian observance of All Saints Day. On November 1 and 2, the dead are said to return to the world of the living. In Mexican communities people set up altars with their loved one’s photos and favorite foods, eat skull-shaped treats, and visit cemeteries to tend the graves and then feast and celebrate through the night.

Of all the cultural practices I encountered in writing my book on mortality, this is the one that I think has the healthiest response to death. I love its quirkiness and whimsy, its dancing skeletons and painted faces, its intertwining of remembrance and joy and mourning. It’s a bit like an Irish wake, only with mariachi bands instead of fiddle music.

I saw many references to Day of the Dead on a recent trip Bob and I made to Texas and Mexico, where communities were preparing to celebrate the festival. And of all the places we visited, I was especially taken by a cemetery in the small town of Terlingua, Texas, which is just outside of Big Bend National Park.

Terlingua, Texas, ghost cemetery
Terlingua, Texas, cemetery at dawn (Bob Sessions photo)

This might well be my favorite cemetery in the world, which is saying something because I’ve visited a lot of them. I loved how it reflects the character of the surrounding area, a hardscrabble corner of West Texas where you have to be tough to survive. We’d been introduced to some of the locals the night before at the nearby Starlight Restaurant, which has a big front porch where people hang out and socialize. There were cowboys and construction workers and tie-dye-wearing hippies. One guy was playing a guitar and farther down the porch another one was strumming a banjo. If you despair over the divisions that plague America, I recommend you visit the Starlight on a Saturday night.

We visited the cemetery at sunrise the next morning, wandering among its gravestones as light slowly illuminated the landscape. Because the ground is so rocky, most bodies are buried not in the ground, but under a rounded pile of stones. Their markers are mostly homemade, often just two pieces of weathered boards nailed together in a makeshift cross. Instead of green grass, the sparse vegetation is mostly scrubby creosote bushes.

Chicken on grave, Terlingua, Texas
Bossbird has a chicken perched at his grave in Terlingua, Texas. (Bob Sessions photo)

As I peered at the markers, I got a sense for the people buried beneath. One grave had a hobbit theme, for example, with a Tolkien quote on the headstone and a miniature hobbit’s burrow below. The grave of David Tinsley, who went by the nickname Boss Bird, had a larger-than-life chicken on it. Another had statues of both the Virgin Mary and a Tyrannosaurus Rex. And here’s my favorite epitaph, which was one of the few engraved in marble rather than scratched onto wood: Another Good Man Done Gone.

But the image that sticks with me the most in thinking back on that graveyard is this: there were several graves that had lawn chairs pulled up at their side, so that people could come and visit the dead and be comfortable. There was something so evocative about those chairs, so symbolic of a different way of viewing death, that it makes me want to reflect upon them some more.

Most of the time in American culture, we try to avoid thinking about mortality. Other than a memorial service and maybe a flurry of Facebook messages after a death, the rituals of mourning have been lost. Long gone are the Victorian days when people would wear black for many months to indicate a loss. In some ways that’s good, of course, as dwelling on death can be morbid and depressing. But we lose something, I think, when grieving becomes a purely private affair that’s meant to be rushed through and ignored.

So that’s one of the reasons, I think, why we should take All Saints Sunday seriously. It’s a day when we too, can sit down in a lawn chair at the gravesides of those we love. And as we’re sitting there, let’s think about some of the lessons the dead have to teach us.

I think the dead might begin by telling us not to take ourselves so seriously. No doubt all of the things that frustrate us and make us anxious look very different from the other side of the grave. I doubt people follow the political news closely, for example, or incessantly check their Facebook feeds. And I bet they wonder why we don’t take more time to savor and enjoy the pleasures of this life.

Day of the Dead cat and dog
Even cats and dogs get the Day of the Dead treatment. (Bob Sessions photo)

Certainly if you’ve seen some of the wonderful Day of the Dead imagery, all those skeleton figures that are dancing and going to weddings and riding bicycles, you get the sense that in the next world, many of them are making up for what they missed in this world.

I think the dead would also remind us that while our ties to them change when they breathe their last, our relationship with them isn’t severed. It just changes. The Bible calls the dead the “great cloud of witnesses.” They, like we, are part of the body of Christ.

Maybe you’ve had the experience, as I have, of feeling that I continue to learn things about people even after they’re gone. By that I mean that through the passage of time, I come to understand more about my loved ones, their motivations, their sorrows, and their strengths. As I grow older and hopefully a bit wiser, I begin to see them with clearer vision.

And as the dead live with us in memory, as we sift the pieces of our experiences with them, polishing some and leaving others behind, forgiveness can blossom, both for them and for ourselves.

The third and last thing the dead might say to us, there as we sit in a chair at their graveside, is this: grief is a part of being human. It’s a testimony to how much we loved them. And that ache may not go away completely, but it will change, and in the process we will change.

Writer Anne Lamott puts it this way:

“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”

In some ways I’m sorry my book is done, because I’ve heard some of the best stories about death after it was published. Let me tell you one of my favorites. I was talking with a woman about her mother’s death. She was beloved by her friends and family and had a big extended clan of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, all of whom wanted to support her as she made her final transition.

But to the surprise of all of them, this woman’s last wish was that she be allowed to die alone. She told them: “I don’t want you around distracting me. If you’re here, I’ll be thinking of you, rather than concentrating on what’s coming. I want to be able to savor every minute of my death, knowing that I will wake up to glory.”

So that’s the final gift that her family gave her, even though it was hard for them to do so. They left her alone when it came time for her to die, and she slipped away peacefully, all by herself.

Now that, my friends, is a woman of faith. And her story speaks to the power of the Christian message, one that we celebrate this All Saints Day, as we remember and honor the great cloud of witnesses who have lived before us. They include St. Francis and St. Teresa and Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr., and your dad and your high school teacher who believed in you and your neighbor down the street whose life ended way too soon. And it includes all the people you hold close in your heart, especially those for whom you’ll light a candle in a few minutes.

As for me, I hope that when I wake up on the other side, heaven will be more like hanging out at the Starlight Restaurant on a Saturday night than it is lounging on a white cloud with a harp.

 

 

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