It’s been said that no one is truly gone from the earth while there’s still someone alive who remembers them.
This belief is at the center of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a beautiful celebration of death and life in the Mexican culture, influenced heavily by its Aztec and Mayan ancestors. Dia de los Muertos is traditionally celebrated on November 1 and 2, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day in the Catholic faith, and similar celebrations take place in many countries and cultures across the globe.
While some may argue the actual origins of this tradition (some scholars say it can be traced to medieval Europe), all agree that Dia de los Muertos is a time for remembering friends, family, and ancestors.
Victor Landa, writing at Latino.com, explains the central belief of Dia de los Muertos: “In our tradition, people die three deaths. The first death is when our bodies cease to function – when our hearts no longer beat of their own accord, when our gaze no longer has depth or weight, when the space we occupy slowly loses its meaning.
“The second death comes when the body is lowered into the ground, returned to Mother Earth, out of sight. The third death, the most definitive death, is when there is no one left alive to remember us.”
Central to the celebration of Dia de los Muertos is the act of preparing an altar, known as an ofrenda, by placing photographs, flowers, candles, and favorite foods and drink of the loved one who has passed on. This tradition provides a special time to remember those we’ve lost and transform grief into acceptance. The living invite the spirits of family ancestors to return home for a few hours of laughter, tears, and memories. The ofrendas are colorful and happy, often featuring bright gold marigolds as their strong scent is said to help spirits find their way home.
I’m someone who never had the opportunity to know and experience life with either my maternal or paternal grandparents before they died, and this lovely tradition speaks deeply to me. For most of my life I’ve said, “I don’t have grandparents.” What a mistake this belief has been.
Earlier this year, my heart was opened when a new perspective entered my thoughts: I’ve always had grandparents who love me – they just don’t live here on earth. I imagine they’re keeping close tabs on their loud, strong, fun-loving granddaughter with a heart for helping and encouraging others. I deeply hope they see some of their own strength and best traits living on within me.
And, that, I believe, is one of the best ways to keep our loved ones alive. When we seek to emulate the very best traits of our friends and family after they’ve left this earth, we not only remember them, we continue their work and their impact in the world.
My dear friend Carolyn passed away 13 years ago – far too young. She was filled with creativity and exuberance and love that she showered on her family and friends. She never met a stranger and she never waited for a special occasion to use the “good stuff” (china plates, candles, crystal wine glasses, “dressy” clothes). Every day was a reason to celebrate. Today, I do my level best to live and love out loud like Carolyn did, with a ready smile, a shoulder to lean on, an expressive wardrobe, and a spirit of adventure. My motto is “Live Urgently.”
Losing those we love is never easy, no matter what faith’s tradition we follow. But when we keep their memory alive, when we invite their spirit to live on in us, and when we emulate what’s most unique and magnificent about them, we can keep them close in our hearts while we share their best with the world.
Dianne Callahan is a local author, speaker, radio show host, and three-time cancer survivor. Her book Lighthearted Life: Simple strategies to live a joy-filled life even in the stormiest times is available on Amazon. Her next book, Journey Through Illness: A guidebook for a trip you never wanted to take, will be released this year.