One of the seven Corporal Works of Mercy is to “bury the dead.” While this certainly means grieving alongside families who have lost loved ones, it also means continuing to love and support the deceased after their death.
Within the Church, November is an entire month during which we focus on those who have passed. Tomorrow, as we celebrate All Saints Day, we will honor all those men and women who have made it to Heaven before us. Some of them we know (the canonized Saints), but most of them, we don’t know. Many of our own ancestors are probably in the mix! The following day, we will celebrate All Souls Day and pray for all those persons in purgatory. For the remaining days of November, the Church encourages and assists us in praying for our deceased loved ones. It’s a beautiful tradition, full of heart and reverence… but sometimes comes across in a sad and somber manner.
Death Does Not Have the Final Word
In many Latin American countries—especially Mexico—honoring the deceased happens differently. In fact, All Saints Day and All Souls Day are known by a different name: “Dia de los Muertos” or “The Day of the Dead.”
Within these cultures, November 1st-2nd are days spent celebrating the lives of those who have passed on. It’s not a somber feast, but a joyful one, fueled by an explosion of color! The day is seen as a big family reunion, when deceased loved ones are the guests of honor, present in a special, spiritual way. It is a celebration with the dead, not of the dead, acknowledging and celebrating that we remain united no matter where we find ourselves in the cycle of life.
I admire this outlook, specifically that death is nothing to fear, as it is simply another stage of existence. As Christians, we all believe this, yet we often view our mortality and the absence of our loved ones with great sorrow. While there is certainly a place for sorrow during grief, I hope we can all reach a place of gratitude for that person’s afterlife.
Would it not be better to celebrate? Would this not fill our mind and senses with happy and hopeful emotions? Perhaps over time, our attitude towards death may stretch and grow. Perhaps we can come to a better understanding of the solidarity that exists between the Stages of the Church, the true union of Heaven, Purgatory, and Earth.
How to Celebrate the Day of the Dead as a Catholic
Though I am not of Latino descent, I’ve been trying to be more intentional in my quest to live liturgically. Admiring the life-affirming joy of the customs of Dia de los Muertos, I intend to incorporate a few Mexican traditions into my family’s celebration of All Saints and All Souls Day.
Make an “Ofrenda,” an Altar of Offering
We have a small prayer altar in our home, complete with a crucifix, an image of Our Lady, and photos of our deceased grandfathers. Tomorrow, I will add the picture of a family friend who died as an infant (as the first day of the celebration remembers “angelitos,” deceased children,) and the following day I will add pictures of other relatives, friends, and neighbors who have passed on.
My husband and I will pray for all of them and enjoy a laid back evening with each other, sharing happy stories about each person. As our daughter grows and years pass, we will tell her (and any future siblings) these stories. In this way, our children will be able to know their great grandparents and all our family friends in a manner they never would have otherwise.
Eat a Favorite Food
Often, ofrendas also contain food for the deceased. The traditional reason being these guests of honor have just completed a long journey in order to visit us. During the celebration, the food is consumed by the living in remembrance of the departed.
I don’t know what my grandpa’s favorite meal was; if I did, I’d make it for supper. Instead, I plan to set out some chocolate covered donuts in his honor, a special treat attached with a cherish memory of his last Christmas on this earth.
Carry a Momento
My husband has a claddagh ring that was worn daily by his Irish grandfather. It’s a cherished momento that is locked away for safekeeping. Still, he likes to bring it out for special occasions (dates that were important in their relationship) and wear it on a chain around his neck. All Souls Day is one of those days.
Unlike in Mexico, the rest of your community will probably not be celebrating with you. Thus, praying for our dearly departed may not be at the forefront of your mind throughout the entirety of your day. However, if you carry something with you—an old note, a handkerchief, a piece of jewelry, etc.—you’ll have a tangible reminder to pray for your loved one, as well as all the souls in Purgatory.
Sadly, we will be unable to do this for our own loved ones as we live states away from family. Still, it is part of the custom of Dia de los Muertos to tend to the grave of a loved one. Families visit cemeteries, clean the headstones, tend to any foliage, and pray. Some even have a party or a picnic!
If we lived within driving distance, I know we would make the effort to make a stop and pray for our loved ones “on site.” Who knows, we might even find some marigolds to take with us and adorn their headstones.
Decorate with Marigolds
Mexicans believe that marigolds help guide their loved one’s soul back to the world of the living, and given that it only flowers during the rainy season, which precedes the Day of the Dead, it has now become heavily and primarily associated with the festivities. Thus, marigolds are also known as “flor de muerto” (the flower of the dead).
I find this fitting, since marigolds are strong, protective flowers that often repel pests that live in the soil and can damage other plants. This is much like how those in Heaven and Purgatory can intercede for us and help us through our own spiritual warfare.
Tonight, I am going to swing by my local farmers market and grab a bunch of these flowers to embellish my apartment and remind me of all my friends in Heaven.
Love is the Point
The main reason for the day is to help those in Purgatory to reach Heaven. Obviously, the absolute best thing we can do for them is to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Everything else is supplemental to this.
Ultimately, it is love that rules this holiday, with any intentional action being seen by Heaven as a prayerful offering for the deceased. So whatever you do, big or small, let it be done with deliberate love for your deceased loved ones.Celebrating the Day of the Dead #BISblog // Click To Tweet
Grace Bellon is a regular contributor to the BIS blog. She’s a lover of bearded men, rich coffee, cheesy puns, cuddly doggies, and Catholicism. You can find out more about her here (warned ya she liked cheesy puns).