Tuesday, November 1, 2016

How should we remember the dead?

Despite the reading of some irreverent and even humorous poems by Billy Collins about death and dying, Sunday's Unitarian Fellowship service for the Day of the Dead was a somber affair. We commemorated the passing of both, prominent members of the congregation as well as people known only to individual congregants. About a dozen people,  their words often drowned by sobs and tears, spoke briefly about relatives and friends they had lost.

I sympathized with their grief. When my mother died, I couldn't stop crying loudly and sometimes uncontrollably, for about a week even though, in truth, we didn't have the warmest of relationships until her final two or three years.

It may be that the sudden absence of someone—not distant memories, pleasant or otherwise—is what unleashes the grief. A couple of years ago, a friend told me that waking up to a half-empty bed after her husband died was the toughest ordeal, that it felt as if some part of her had been torn away.

Remembering the dearly departed. 
While I appreciate and respect others' mourning, I've gradually embraced the more celebratory tone of Mexico's Day of the Dead, when the dearly departed are said to come back for a visit to exchange memories with the friends and relatives they left behind.

On November 2, either at homes or cemeteries, altars are assembled containing pictures of the departed and some of their favorites items, even a fifth of tequila if, to be honest about it, Uncle Pepe was known as a bit of tippler. At cemeteries, in a tradition that may resemble a picnic with food and drink and even songs, some relatives congregate around freshly cleaned and decorated graves to reminisce about grandma and others who've moved Upstairs.

To someone raised in Catholic traditions that glorify death, suffering, blood and tears as essential signposts along the road to eternal salvation—just walk around a Mexican church and check out the expressions on the statues—the festiveness of the Day of the Dead may seem scandalous, sacrilegious.

It's not that Mexicans are incapable of grieving for lost ones. A month ago, Félix reported that a brother-in-law in his forties had died overnight after a long fight with kidney disease. His eyes filled with tears and it took all of Félix's macho self-control to avoid outright crying. I shook his hand and gave him a quick hug, after which he told me all about José María, his family and how long he'd been sick. Félix and his the family will go to the local cemetery tomorrow to visit with José, and also one of Félix' sisters who died from a tumor when she was just twenty-one, and two other siblings who were stillborn.

After an initial period of grief—of detachment—I like the idea of celebrating and reminiscing about the dead, warts and all, rather than mourning them in perpetuity. Mexican writer Octavio Paz famously explained the contradiction in Mexicans' attitude toward death and grieving as ultimately one of acceptance.

"The Mexican...is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. True, there is as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: He looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony." 

So this year Stew and I have put together our own Day of the Dead altar over the mantle of the fireplace, with the requisite orange marigolds, votive candles and photos of our dead relatives whom we will remember: Both of our parents (Mario and Georgina, and Thorleif and Frances); our grandmothers, mine maternal (Herminia), Stew's paternal (Verda); my paternal uncle Alejo and my cousin Gustavo, a lovely, dog-loving human being who succumbed to mental illness and committed suicide while still in his forties. Naturally we've also included some of our pets that have gone on to claim their eternal reward of kibbles.

We don't expect to be chatting with any of them or pretending that we don't miss them. In one of his more ironic poems, Collins notes that people die in order to make room for the next generation—to get out of the way—so younger folks can step up with new ideas presumably for improving this world. Next in line at the departure gate will be us.

That reality is not necessarily sad or joyful, just our turn in the inevitable cycle of life. I just hope to get a chance to visit Downstairs once a year to peek on how everyone is doing.

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