Dia de los Muertos-Day of the Dead

Decorated Sugar Skull

Decorated Sugar Skull

Maria slumped in a chair beside me in my office at Messiah Parish, Santa Ana, California. She gasps for breathe between sobs of grief. Here is where my Spanish hits a speed bump: the heavily accented Spanish laced with her native indigenous language. I try to find a noun, verb, direct object and context. She mentions her son, Miguel, something horrible happened to him. Her heart is breaking.

My parishioner Angelica, who has a huge compassionate heart, saw Maria sobbing at the bus stop near the church, took her hand and walked her over to talk with me. What happened?

Her story was a familiar one in the parish, where one-third are Latino, many undocumented. We are in the Logan Barrio, a densely populated community of working poor, where a three-bedroom apartment will have a family living in each bedroom, often sleeping on the floor. Parishioner Angelica and Gerson, her husband, and two children are one of those families.

Maria and her brother paid a coyote to help her son cross the border in southern Arizona in the hellishly hot days of August. He had been suddenly deported, leaving his wife and children in Santa Ana. Maria waited for a phone call from Miguel that he had arrived. He was overdue. Maria prayed and cried during those long days and nights of waiting. She had horrible dreams that he wanders in the desert alone without water or food. She dreamed that he collapsed under a mesquite tree, too weak to go on. Miguel calls out to his mother. The dream reoccurred repeatedly, as panic possessed Maria’s heart.

At one point Maria stopped sobbing and sat up, breathed more easily and deeply. “My brother and two cousins went searching in the area where we thought he would be. They found him there under a mesquite tree, dead. He had no shoes.”

A few weeks later on All Saints Sunday at the parish, we gathered in the church courtyard around a multilayered altar, an ofrenda. On different levels of the altar were photos of loved ones who had died in the past year, positioned between pots of marigolds and pan del muertos, a sweet bread with skull decorations. Native incense floated upward from the north, south, east and west sides of the altar

Parishioner David Vazquez, a shaman-poet from a mountain village above Puebla, Mexico, chanted a prayer to the saints in his native Nahuatl, the ancient Aztec language, and then in Spanish. He held up the incense burner, walking around the altar, facing intentionally the six directions: north, south, east, west, heaven and earth. Maria stood near a photo of her son; a cluster of family members encircled her, including Miguel’s wife and children.

Most of these families have stories to tell you about danger and death crossing the desert to come to America. Whatever your political position is on the controversies over immigration, I know each of these families and the hopes and dreams that drew them here away from poverty and violence. Today, around this altar of the saints of their lives, they honor a spiritual gateway that opens up between October 31 and November 2, when the spirits of loved ones come to visit their families. In death life changes but does not end, and through Christ, nothing can separate the people singing and praying around this altar, from the eternal bond of love for those who have died.

Folk Art Day of the Dead

Folk Art Day of the Dead

During the days of All Saints, Latino families visit the Catholic cemetery on Santiago Canyon Road, decorating graves with flowers, balloons and toys for children. They will spend the day communing with their loved ones.

In another cemetery, the history Mountain View Cemetery, in Altadena, CA, you could walk with me past the graves of the Karelius and Burman clans. Angel statues look down on us. As I look for my mother’s grave, always hard to find, I walk by the headstones of
*Henry Markham: Governor of CA.
*Wallace Neff, Architect
*Maude Prickett, actress
*Eldridge Cleaver, of the Black Panthers
*Charles Richter, Cal Tech Seismologist
*George Reeve: TV’s Superman.

Here is my mother’s grave. She died in 1989 at the age of 69 of colon cancer. It was Easter Day early morning when she died. Around me are the graves of many aunts and uncles.

Christians believe in the Communion of Saints, that those who have died are not only still alive in the presence of the Lord, but that they are still in real relationship with us.

While Christians have reverence for the dead, they don’t try to make mummies out of them. On that first Easter Morning, when Mary Magdala and other women brought spices to embalm the body of Jesus, they did not find him in that tomb. They met an angel who asked them, “Why are you looking in a cemetery for someone who is alive?” “He’s not here,” the angel added. “Go instead to Galilee and he will meet you there.”

When we seek to connect with our loved ones who have died, we will meet them in “Galilee,” not a cemetery. So where is Galilee for you and me?

Ron Rolheiser writes:
“For Mary Magdala and the disciples, Galilee was more than a place on a map. It was the place where Jesus’ spirit had flourished, the place they had first met him, the place of his miracles, the place where their own spirits were stretched, and warmed by contact with him. Galilee was for them the remembrance of a place of innocence, that first awakening of their spirits, their initial learning, and their first falling in love. Now, after Jesus’ death, they were being sent back to that place of blessing, where Jesus would meet them again.”
“And our faith says the same thing to us. Like Mary Magdela and the disciples, we can meet our deceased loved ones by going back to Galilee. By going back to those places where their spirits flourished and where our own spirits were instructed, stretched and warmed by contact with them. “(Finding our Loved Ones after their Death, 11-21-2004).

What would this look like for you and me?

Sometimes I visit Mountain View cemetery, at the foot of those beautiful San Gabriel Mountains. Willow trees and Sycamores surround the space. I clear the grass off the aging brass name plate. I kneel and say some prayers there. I remember how Mom nurtured me and stood with me through some bad mistakes in my early life. However, this is not really where I meet my mother. I meet her in Galilee, those places where her soul flourished in life giving energy.

For example, my mother was a woman of great generosity. I think that was formed in her early work as a nurse from Johns Hopkins Hospital working in the ghettoes of Baltimore. When I go to that place, when I am generous and warm hearted, I feel my mother’s sense of consolation. When I journey to take care of my last remaining aunt and uncle at the senior residence in Altadena, what I give to help them comes from remembrance of my mother’s generosity.

On the other hand, when I am petty and self consumed, it does me no good to clear the grass from her grave, place flowers there, or pray there. She’s there with me in those times of desolation just as God is with me, but when I am not in her Galilee its’ harder for her to meet me and give me what she once gave me as a mother.

Where do we find our deceased loved ones and where will others we love find us after we have died. It will be in those places where we each have lived out the love and presence of God.

We remember our loved ones at the Feast of All Saints and honor them in the cemeteries where their bodies now rest. But we will continue to meet them where their spirits flourished.

Ron Rolheiser concludes: “We will meet them where our own souls were stretched and instructed and warmed in our contact with them. More than honoring their graves, we need to honor their lives, the wonderful energy they uniquely incarnated and which nurtured, instructed, stretched, admonished, consoled, warmed, teased, humored, steadied and blessed us.”

Rest eternal grant to them, O Lord;
And let light perpetual shine upon them.
May their souls, and the souls of all the departed,
Through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

About fatherbrad1971

Professor of Philosophy and World Religions at Saddleback Community College, Mission Viejo, CA. Episcopal priest since 1971 in Diocese of Los Angeles (retired). Owner of Desert Spirit Press, publishers of books on desert spirituality. Author, "The Spirit in the Desert: PIlgrimages to Sacred Sites in the Owens Valley." and "Encounters with the World's Religions: the Numinous on Highway 395". Memberships: Nevada Archaeological Association, Western Writers of America, California Cattlemen's Association, American Association of University Professors, Outdoor Writers of California, American Academy of Religion, Western Folklore Association.
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6 Responses to Dia de los Muertos-Day of the Dead

  1. Margaret says:

    That is beautiful, Father Brad, and a reminder for me about humilty – which of God’s own would I judge worthy to live, worthy to chase a dream across a desert and into a foreign land, which would I comfort in their grief?

  2. Mark Ross says:

    Beautiful Fr. Bad ! I’ll never forget that fateful day you comforted me on the steps outside of the emergency room in Orange when Angela died, what a desert journey that became ! You are the hands & feet of Jesus ! Thank you !

  3. Katrina Soto says:

    Such an eloquent expression of our resurrection. Thank you. This makes my own ofrenda even more special to me. Love and peace to you.

  4. Gordon Moreland,S.J. says:

    This is beautiful and very relevant. Since I live across from the cemetery I am familiar with that part. Since All Souls was a Saturday this year the crowds were huge.

  5. Callie Main says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I recently lost a dear friend and it is such a comforting reminder to read this and know she is with me still.

  6. Barbara Rodriguez says:

    Father I am second generation Irish Catholic from Boston. Twenty years ago I married a Hispanic/american first generation. We along with a few other Latino’s started a ministry at our Parish in Orangevale CA. Divine Savoir Church; called Guadelupe Society. We started the tradition of building a “Ofrenda” in the Narthex for All Souls and All Saints Day. It would stand for 2 weeks. Everyone in the parish was invited to put a small photo of a deceased loved one on the ofrenda. At the first couple of year’s the non-hispanic population would view the ofrenda because of the skulls and other decorations. We provided phamplets explaining the practice and purpose of Dia De Los Muertos. Eventually it not only became accepted, but folk looked forward every year to it. This year it was moved into the actual worship area. Many of us come from cultures (celtic) that once had rituals for remembering and celebrating their ancestors in the communion of saints. It is good to be able to borrow from other cultures and to celebrate our diversity in worship..Barbara Rodriguez

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