Dia de los Muertos: Its definitely not Halloween

Day of the Dead Catrina Figurines
La Calavera Catrina. Courtesy Wikipedia

If you want to know how a particular religion or culture understands the meaning of life, the best thing you can do is pay attention to how that group deals with death. In many American cities, we are blessed with an amazing confluence of ethnic and national groups. We reside in a virtual living laboratory of cultural anthropology, if we are willing to explore with open minds.

Each October, I like to visit the mostly Mexican neighborhoods. In virtually all of them, as in all communities in Mexico, they celebrate an occasion known as Dia de los Muertos, meaning the Day of the Dead. It coincides with American Halloween, intentionally, but its emphasis is very different from ghoulishness and silliness of Halloween.

More than 500 years ago, when the Spanish Conquistadors landed in what is now Mexico, they encountered natives practicing a ritual that seemed to mock death. It was a ritual the indigenous people had been practicing at least 3,000 years.  Although the ritual has since been merged with Catholic theology, it still maintains the basic principles of the Aztec ritual, such as the use of candy and toy skulls. The skulls are used to honor the dead, and are used to symbolize death and rebirth in the world to come.  I remember the window of one panaderia, with a large candy skull on display. Next to it was a sign which read: “As you look, I once looked…And I now look, so one day will you.” A sobering thought, to be sure!

The day’s activities usually consist of visits by families to the graves of their close relatives. At the gravesites family members engage in sprucing up the gravesite, decorating it with flowers, setting out and enjoying a picnic, and interacting socially with other family and community members who gather at the cemetery. Families remember the departed by telling stories about them.  They bring toys for deceased children and bottles of tequila to adults. They sit on picnic blankets next to gravesites and eat the favorite food of their loved ones. Many spend the day and even all night in the cemetery. Families also build altars in their homes, dedicating them to the dead. They surround these altars with flowers, food and pictures of the deceased. They light candles and place them next to the altar. They honor the dead by playing their favorite music, and preparing their favorite foods, and all of these little acts express a sense of continuity with those who have passed away, as if to say that they remind united, at one with them, though now separated by death. It is not a morbid occasion, but an almost festive time. It represents the spiritual bridge which exists between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

I would encourage you to visit your nearest Mexican neighborhood at Halloween time. You will find it to be a most interesting experience, I promise you.

So, you may wonder, why have I begun this sermon with the description of an ancient Aztec, turned Catholic holiday? Ever since becoming acquainted with the Day of the Dead, I have been struck by the beauty with which this particular culture expresses reverence for the dead. And I have also been struck by this holiday’s similarity to Judaism’s Yarhzeits and Yizkor observances. Just about every aspect of their observance seems intended to convey the sense that, although their dear ones have passed on, they have not passed away. They remain a living presence. Their photographs displayed on the family altars, their favorite foods, songs and drinks…all of these are vivid reminders of the love which endures far beyond the grave.

In fact, their custom of visiting the cemetery on October 31st bears a strong resemblance to the time-honored tradition of Jewish families visiting the graves of our dear ones in the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I don’t know of Jewish families actually having picnics at the cemetery but the sentiment remains the same. Perhaps we have something to learn from our Mexican neighbors.

In so many ways, Yom Kippur is the Jewish Day of the Dead. You may even be aware of an old Jewish custom, still practiced among the Orthodox, that male worshippers come to the synagogue attired in what is called a kittel, a white robe-like garment, that is said to be directly reminiscent of the burial shroud, a reminder of each person’s mortality.

Not unlike the mood of Dia de los Muertos, Yizkor (memorial) services and yahrzeits need not be morbid. Sad, of course, but morbid no. On these occasions, we naturally feel deep sorrow that our dear ones are no longer physically with us, but the greater and more ennobling sentiment ought to be that of gratitude for all that they meant to us in life and for the many ways in which they will always guide and inspire us. As our prayerbook so beautifully expresses:  “Like the stars by day, our beloved may no longer be seen by our mortal eyes, but they continue to shine on…” “The deeds of the righteous enrich the lives of others just as the fallen leaf enriches the soil beneath.”  “Death is not the end.”  “In our hearts, our loved ones never die. Their love and memory abide as lasting inspirations, moving us to noble deeds and blessing us evermore.”

On Yom Kippur and on the other major Jewish holidays, synagogues everywhere hold the Yizkor or Memorial service during whichwe remember the dead. For so many of us, especially those who have lost those dearest to us, Yizkor is an especially revered tradition. It is a tangible and necessary means for us the living to honor the dead, for us to affirm that, although gone, our dear ones have not disappeared. The Memorial prayers, particularly the Kaddish, attest that although the body has sided and has been laid in the earth, our loved ones vibrantly and vividly continue through the remembrance of those to whom they were precious. Their deeds of loving kindness, the words they spoke to us, even the small but memorable things they did and the simple pleasures they enjoyed, all of these memories are treasured as evidence of how much they meant to us when they were still alive…and how much they still mean to us, even after the snowfalls of many winters may have covered their graves.

I know we are not supposed to be thinking of food on Yom Kippur, and I will try not to whet your appetites too much, but if you think for a moment as to why, in our own homes and families, on these holiday occasion we so often partake in special foods that our mothers or grandmothers used to make, and those that we so enjoyed when they were with us, we can so easily recognize that these special dishes, made almost but not quite like they used to make, are an important part of our linkage to those loved ones. Once again, we enjoy their favorite recipes, and it is as if part of them is still alive.

An old rabbinical rhetorical device is that if you take the word “atone,” it can be divided into the words “at one,” meaning that this is a day of At-one ment. Mostly, the rabbis say that Yom Kippur is a day for being at-one with ourselves and with God. But I also believe that Yom Kippur is a day in which we appreciated just how much the living and the dead may be at-one with one another. In our prayers, in our memories and in our hearts we may be at one with those we have lost physically, but in a more profound sense never will be lost.

I would like to believe that our heart-felt desire to be at one with those who have departed could be reflected in more important ways than merely emulating their habits or tastes in this or that. Thus, even when they are gone, the departed are with us, moving us to live as, in their highest and best moments, they aspired to live. Thus they live on in our hearts; thus they are an abiding blessing.

In our Jewish religion, we are taught that the way in which we keep the spirits of our dear ones alive is the way in which we model, emulate or perhaps mimic their qualities. I suppose we have to admit than that nothing in this life is completely permanent, but we can say this: As long as we live, our dear ones do remain a living presence, if we, in so many ways both tangible and intangible reflect their personalities and their values..

And when our own time comes, we can only hope that our best parts will be carried on in the lives of those who come after us. Ah, but that is also the challenge!  If we want to be remembered, and who doesn’t?…then we must be aware that the manner in which we conduct our lives will be carried on, for better or for worse.

I am convinced that this chain is virtually genetic. We do so many things because we model our parents, who modeled their parents, who modeled their parents, going back to who knows where or when. And, as sad as I am to admit it, we reflect not only positive behavior but negative traits as well. How many times have you caught yourself doing or saying something that your own parents did or said, and which you swore to yourself you yourself would never do? To paraphrase the Bible, oftimes, unfortunately, the sins of the parents are suffered by their children and even by their children’s children.

You must remember the old Harry Chapin song, “Cats in the cradle” I’ll remind you with the first and last verses:

My child arrived just the other day.
He came to the world in the usual way.
But there were planes to catch, and bills to pay.
He learned to walk while I was away.
And he was talking before I knew it, and as he grew,
He’d say, “I’m gonna be like you, dad.
You know I’m gonna be like you.”

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon,
Little boy blue and the man in the moon.
“When you coming home, dad?” “I don’t know when,
But we’ll get together then.
You know we’ll have a good time then.”

I’ve long since retired and my son’s moved away.
I called him up just the other day.
I said, “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind.”
He said, “I’d love to, dad, if I could find the time.
You see, my new job’s a hassle, and the kid’s got the flu,
But it’s sure nice talking to you, Dad.
It’s been sure nice talking to you.”
And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me,
He’d grown up just like me.
My boy was just like me.”

Fortunately we are capable of change and transformation. We are not our parents. Each of us is capable of evolving, and also of breaking old habits. In fact, this is the great hope expressed by the over-arching theme of the High Holy Days; that we can turn over a new leaf. Still, we know that there is great truth in the old adage that “the apple does not fall far from the tree.”

I am positive that both the good and the not-so-good we do lives on. The way in which conduct our daily lives is amplified through the lives of those who inherit both our genes and our proclivities. We live through acts of selfishness and callousness.  We also live on through the acts of kindness and simple decency. When we encounter a person of exceptional kindness or generosity, almost every time, more often than not that character is owed, in no small measure, to the influence of a mother or father. These virtues absolutely are passed down, by example, to those who come after us. And the other traits…well, I think we know about them too.