Carol Merchasin, author of How It Goes in Mexico, reflects on how she came to celebrate the Day of the Dead.
I remember when my housekeeper suggested that I might want to create an altar to celebrate death.
“Death?” I thought. “What’s to celebrate?” But since I was living in Mexico where Day of the Dead is a national tradition, I went with the flow. After all, what harm could come from participating in what I saw as a “quaint” ritual of my adopted country?
First I created an altar filled with marigolds. There are so many marigolds used for Day of the Dead that I was convinced there must be a Hallmark-like conspiracy of marigold farmers driving this so-called death celebration.
“Now, you must add alcohol and food and things that the spirits of the dead will be happy to see when they return,” my housekeeper advised. So I added photos, alcohol and candles, worried about the likely danger of an explosion and placed food and objects into the tableau. I prepared an altar for the animals now gone: Chloe and the many cats, Max, the dog.
It was colorful and unique, but I cried every time I passed to see so much death right there in front of me. After a week, I packed the mementos and photos away in a small blue cardboard box and placed it on a high closet shelf in the unlikely event I would want to bring such sadness down on myself again.
The next year, I took down the blue box once more. I noticed that the communal marking of death, so wonderfully Mexican, made me less sad, or maybe sad but also joyful. I went about remembering my absent loved ones, not in the privacy of my own sorrow, but in the company of a whole community, an entire nation. Just the physical ritual of making the altar—choosing the photos, thinking about what mementos to use, going to the market for flowers and tiny sugar animals brought me a flood of unexpected pleasure and solace.
That year the blue box got a label: Celebrating Day of the Dead.
Every year now, it seems we add someone new to our altar, a sharp remembrance of the passage of time and our own mortality. This year, we add Robert’s mother, Dorothy. We welcome her presence there—for at 102 years of age, hers was a death worth celebrating. We add Penny and Big Brown, dogs who have passed into the Heaven where only such loyal friends can go.
I still cry. But the humor of the display takes over as I put out spaghetti and whiskey for my father, catnip for the cats, a book on how to train a dog for dogs who were always so poorly trained and I smile. Es la vida, I say. That is life.
Day of the Dead may be “quaint” to our US eyes, but its sophistication is in putting death into its rightful place as part of la vida. The truth is inescapable. As the years march by, we will surely need yet another blue box to hold our celebration.