by Padre Bjorn Marcussen
Día de Muertos (directly translated: The Day of the Dead) has its origin in Mexico before the country was invaded by the Spanish empire.
A quick review of Mexican pictorial art and literature, including folk stories and folk songs, shows death as an omnipresent "personage." Death shows up in stories such as that of La Llorona -- the mother who walks the streets and lanes crying over the death of her baby -- or as a critic of society, and especially politicians, found every year in the papers on November 2 in the form of anonymous satirical poems called "calaveras" ("skulls").
Mexico's indigenous people viewed the world differently than their Western counterparts. The Cosmos was a complicated unity in which death was there to be lived with. The indigenous people did not have the European sense of death as deprivation and a time of judgment with rewards or punishment. In fact: This is not so very different from the worldview we meet in St. Luke's rendering of Jesus' story of Lazarus and the rich man.
Día de Muertos is really a misnomer. It should be Días de Muertos (the Days of the Dead) for it stretches over three days: October 31 through November 2. For the indigenous people of Mexico as well as for contemporary Mexicans these days are not spooked by "things that go bump in the night". Rather it is a time for celebration with the deceased loved ones who are thought to come back for a few days to unite with the living. Food that was especially loved by the departed is prepared, a ritual plate is set out for them and the living enjoy the rest of the food in a joyful mood.
One prominent feature of Día de Muertos is the Altar de Muertos (the Altar of the Dead). Its place is really in the home because it is a centerpiece of family celebrations. In U.S. churches that have become centers of spiritual and community life, Latinas and Latinos have begun building Altars of the Dead either in the church buildings or in the social halls where a community celebration is held.
The Altar of the Dead is highly symbolic. In a sense it is an allegory of cosmic harmony that reinforces the idea that the dead come to feast to console the living -- not to scare them.
The Altar of the Dead can be very primitive or highly elaborate. In poor homes it often only has two steps that signify heaven and earth. The traditional and more elaborate Altar de Muertos, which in St. Paul's Cathedral is placed to the left of the High Altar (from the congregation's perspective), is comprised of seven steps. The steps signify the following:
- The first step holds one or more representations of beloved saints.
- Step two expresses the deceased's desire to enter into heaven. In Roman Catholic Mexico this step often has pictures of the peculiar Roman belief of purgatory, where the souls supposedly are punished to be cleansed of sin. It is peculiar, because the souls are disembodied and as such cannot feel bodily pain.
- On this step a bowl of salt is placed to represent the purity of the deceased children. Among indigenous Mexicans there was a belief that deceased children went to a blessed place called Chichihuacuauhco where a tree of life grew. Out of its branches came milk that nurtured the children for all eternity.
- Step four contains Bread of the Dead, Pan de Muertos, a special bread baked for that day with lots of rich butter and shaped round with strips of dough on top to signify both the cross and the bones of the Savior.
- This step holds the fruits and food especially dear to the deceased.
- On step six photos and other mementos of the deceased are laid.
- On the final step is found a cross, customarily made from seeds and fruits.
The Altar of the Dead comes as a gift to the Cathedral from the Latino community of St. Paul's Cathedral to remind us that death is not a perpetual absence but a metaphor for life that is constantly renewed.
The Day of the Dead will be celebrated by our Spanish-speaking congregation on Sunday, October 30 2016 at 1 pm. The community -- whatever language they speak and whatever culture they are from -- is invited to bring mementos or pictures of their departed loved ones and friends to place on the steps of the Altar of the Dead on that Sunday. We hope you will join us for Mass in Spanish!
Originally posted Oct 2013, this is revised annually