For All the Saints: Celebrating Life

My father arrives first.  Then my mother. And my godmother. Then Roger, Avi, Alan, and Jim. The grandparents come in pairs, my aunts and uncle too. Bit by bit, staggered through the night, they arrive.

Tonight is Samhain, All Hallows Eve. When, it is said, the veil between the worlds is thinnest.

The altar is set. Candles are ready to be lit. Glasses ready to be filled. Photographs of smiling faces stare back at me. Yellow mums, Alstroemeria, and traditional marigolds help light the way. When night comes, I’ll lower a match to wicks, get cozy, and wait. One by one they will come.

The ofrenda is a Mexican tradition and an important part of the Dia de los Muertos celebration. I’m not Mexican. I’m not even Hispanic. But I have celebrated All Hallows Eve, All Saints, and All Souls Day ever since I was a child. In some ways, it’s really all the same thing except with a lot more color.

It was 1993, I think, when I first learned of  Dia de los Muertos. By then, my father, my paternal grandparents, and friends Roger, Rollis, and Michael had transitioned from this plane to the next. More would go soon enough. I knew nothing about ofrendas then so my first was without color and a bit somber.

I grew up singing “For All The Saints Who from Their Labors Rest” the first Sunday of every November for All Saints Day. It is, by far, my most favorite hymn. Tonight I will sing every verse.  And I will, as always, tear up with the words.

Ah, but Days of the Dead. Even with the tears, these days are somehow joyous. One holiday during which to remember all my loved ones: a celebration, a party, a large family gathering. Wonderful memories. Flowing wine. Special treats. Good stories.

Sometimes I am the only one on this side. The only one waiting for the others to arrive. Other times, friends or lovers have joined me, extending the altar to include their family as well. When there are others, we share stories between us. When I am alone, I share stories with the souls. I speak to them directly. I wait for their response. I introduce them to each other. I thank them each for coming.

This year I will light candles for four more friends, four more who will come for the first time: Jada, Gloria, Chuck, and Dave.

I’ll pour a glass of port for my father. For my mother, I’ll have a Manhattan and chocolate. For Grama Baird and Teresa, orange pekoe tea in a china cup. For Ralph & Lenna and all the others, there will be lots of yellow and lights.

Every year it changes. The photos and flowers and display, the special treats for those who will visit me. An ofrenda is traditionally for only one person. Mine are always for many. Great parties are those when you know some of the guests but not others. When folks who appear to have nothing in common end up connecting over shared laughter. My family has always been great at throwing big parties. This evening is no different.

Most people are afraid of death. I’m not. I was present when both of my parents died. I’ve sat next to and held the hands of many close to death, breaths away from their last. When my time comes, I’m pretty sure I’ll surrender. I just hope there’s little to no pain.

I think, perhaps, the real fear for many folks is the possibility of being forgotten. The very real likelihood of there being one day when no one who remembers you. And if no one remembers, did you ever exist? If no one remembers, what was the point?

This is why we create monuments, yes? In bronze, if you’re famous, and in granite otherwise. We place markers in cemeteries so people can find us.

I love cemeteries.

Dia de los Muertos reminds us that death is inevitable. And this, along with our fear of death is, perhaps, why Halloween has become so popular among adults, along with scary movies. Skeletons, graves, and zombies become something to laugh at. Death parodied. But truly, death is sacred. Calaveras – decorative skulls, some made from sugar – remind us that even death is beautiful and life is sweet. Savor it.

Death be not proud, though some have called you Mighty and dreadful, for you are not so. For those you think you overthrow Do not die, poor death, nor can you kill me.  (John Donne, Holy Sonnet X)

The real beauty of Dia de los Muertos is that people are remembered. Family comes together. Ancestors are honored. During this holiday each year, it is more evident than ever that nothing can break the bonds of love – not even death. To love is to remember. To be remembered is to live. To be loved is to be home.

Long before we lowered flags at half-mast to honor the dead, there was the tolling of church bells. First to announce an impending death, then to announce the death itself.

John Donne, the cleric, scholar, and poet of the late 16th Century, wrote:

Perhaps he for whom the bell tolls may be so ill that he doesn’t know it tolls for him. Perhaps I think that I am recovered to such good health that I do not know the bell is being tolled for me by all those around me who see my illness more clearly than I. . . . No man is an island, entire unto itself. Every person is a piece of the continent, a part of the mainland. If a clod is washed away by the sea, Europe is diminished, just as if the sea had washed away a mountain or one of your friend’s grand houses. Any person’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in humankind. Therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for you. 

(Devotion XVII)

Honestly, there’s not a space large enough for a full ofrenda – one that honors all those close to me who have shed their mortal skins. And when I think of Donne’s words, there could never be a space large enough.

Whether or not you make an ofrenda sometime over these next two days, may you raise a glass of wine or sip a cup of tea and remember. Remember each loved one who is just beyond the veil and always in your heart. Remember your teachers, your parents, your friends. Remember those you never met but admired from afar. Remember those you never knew but whose lives, too, mattered.

Life is sweet. Death is inevitable. The bell tolls for thee.

Remember. Then celebrate.

Some ofrendas from years past

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