Cultural Holiday Offers Opportunity To Reflect On Our Need For Commemoration                                                                    

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by Oralia Diaz, Arte Sana - November 2001

This year, the first two days of November will once again mark the annual Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead celebration, a ritual which dates back to pre-Colombian times when the Aztecs and Mayans took time to honor the intimate connection between life and death. This holiday represents a rich blend of Catholic and indigenous traditions and is a celebration for both the living and the dead.

During this time, the spirits of the departed are believed to return to their homes to visit with their families and friends for a short time. While the evening of October 31 is reserved for the souls of deceased children, on November 1st and 2nd they are joined by the spirits of adults.  Due to the warm social implications, this commemoration of the dead has pleasant overtones for most observers and participants, whose festive interaction with living and dead is a way of recognizing the cycle of life and death that is human existence.

In these difficult times we might reflect upon the undertones of this holiday and how they figured prominently following the recent attacks on our homeland. The significance of this holiday, a tradition not exclusive to the Latin American community, has existed throughout history in cultures where people have continually fashioned some degree of commemoration that allowed for a period to reflect, remember, and celebrate mortality. Within the past several weeks, people everywhere have observed innumerable spontaneous displays of this practice repeated worldwide.

On September 11, 2001, the world was witness to an unspeakable occurrence that would alter our lives forever. The terrorist attacks on the United States plunged our country into chaos and uncertainty. Nevertheless, almost immediately, quiet “memorials” began emerging throughout this nation and around the world. While the altars constructed hundreds of years ago by the Aztecs may have included symbolic objects meant to honor the deceased and facilitate a safe journey home, the modern memorials were also rich in symbolism. Often prominent among the tributes were teddy bears, the American flag, and emblems representative of police and firefighters. Many of these objects assumed new meaning that day.

Along with these expressions of sorrow came the opportunity to reflect, pray, and grieve in assembly. Following the tragedy, many people searched desperately for solace. Many converged upon places of worship while others gathered by candlelight or at various memorial vigils in communities throughout the United States. A national day of mourning was organized to honor the memory of the thousands of victims of these brutal attacks and comfort those who lost loved ones. Through these gatherings, many discovered a sanctuary, a place where the emotions of others often reflected their own. Not only were they sharing in the pain, but the love of others as well. 

Just as many sought relief from their distress following the attacks, some Day of the Dead rituals – such as construction of an altar – can help survivors express their grief. Honoring the deceased through a display of tangible and relevant symbols provides survivors with a means to reaffirm the continuity of the presence of their loved ones in their consciousness. 

The Aztecs themselves viewed death and rebirth as inextricably linked and refused to view death as a finality, choosing instead to focus on the opportunities for new beginnings.  Similarly, in an immense outpouring of generosity after September 11, hundreds of thousands of individuals immediately pledged physical, emotional and monetary resources to support the living. We prayed for healing and for strength as we sought to serve and encourage one another in hope and faith. Throughout this time, our country mobilized for the sake of rebuilding not only our lives, but our spirits as well.

For many this year, the Dia de los Muertos tradition will also provide an opportunity to celebrate human existence. Christina Gonzalez, senior lecturer on Hispanic issues at Arizona State University writes, “ In rural Mexico, people visit the cemetery where their loved ones are buried. They decorate gravesites with marigold flowers and candles. They bring music as well as toys for dead children and bottles of tequila to adults. They sit on picnic blankets next to gravesites and eat the favorite food of their loved ones.”  It is an opportunity to reflect and rejoice.

Following September 11, the family of one of the missing persons engaged in a jubilant ritual of their own. They threw a birthday party to commemorate the life of their loved one complete with cake, candles, balloons, and gifts.  By reveling in their memories and refusing to validate their fears, many relatives of the missing were able to maintain hope.

As with many traditions, the Day of the Dead observances have been transformed over time to encompass more than memorials to departed loved ones. Many altars exist as social commentaries, constructed to address specific social issues such as the plight of immigrants or school violence. Many altars constructed this year will undoubtedly combine expressions of remembrance as well as commentary on the recent terrorist attacks.

The potency of memory should not be underestimated. Witness the unmistakable emphasis it has been afforded by cultures throughout the centuries. Acknowledging how history often influences the future is also a necessary component of healing. The expressions of those celebrating the Day of the Dead this year will echo many of the same sentiments reflected in the September 11 memorials. Once again, they will create altars that testify to the human need to acknowledge and even celebrate the inextricable connection between life and death.


Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past, translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff.

Dale Hoyt Palfrey, The Day of the Dead -- Mexico Honors Those Gone but Not Forgotten

Carlos Miller, ‘The Day of the Dead’ Die, The Arizona Republic

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