Culture / Grief & loss / Kids / Life

Keeping los muertos alive Screen Shot 2013-10-29 at 10.26.35 PMIt’s hard to follow the imagination-filled sugar-fest that is Halloween. Still, before I can sneak all the mini-Snickers’ out of my kids’ trick or treat bags, Día De Los Muertos is upon us.  I don’t want to let this holiday slip by without  some observance, but it’s difficult to celebrate a holiday in a vacuum.  I don’t know many other families that observe the holiday here in the U.S. and most of the celebrations I’ve found around town are actually thinly veiled restaurant promotions.  This leaves us trying to piece together a celebration of our own.

A couple of years ago we were in Mexico for Day of the Dead and it took hardly any effort on my part to incorporate the celebration into our lives.  Every trip to the market was filled with sugar skulls, marigolds, papel picado (colorful decorative paper), pan de muerto (bread of the dead), and candles. There were public ofrendas (altars) set up all over town, celebrations were held in the main square, and calacas (skeletons) and catrinas (skeletons dressed as fancy ladies) decorated the streets.

In contrast, here in Philadelphia it’s like a scavenger hunt to find the makings of a proper offrenda.  We will do our best to create a small home altar.  We’ll display pictures of those we’ve lost, gather their favorite foods and remember them fondly.  We will tell funny stories about the times they shared with us and speculate about what they’d think about life today.  We will celebrate their lives.


My son Leo is three years old and has had many questions about death over the last year.  I think the ongoing conversation we’ve been having with him has been going well, though every once in a while he will say something like, “If the spider dies we can just give him some water and wake him up,”  reminding me that he doesn’t quite have the concept down pat.  I welcome opportunities to talk with him about death and the people who have died, and he requests anecdote after anecdote about the grandmother he never met and what my grandparents were like.

In a culture that so rarely talks about death, I think the message of Día De Los Muertos is especially important.  While I’m not entirely sure what I believe happens after death, I embrace the idea that we haven’t truly lost those who have died.  And while a literal welcoming back of the spirits may or may not fit everyone’s belief system, I think many people take comfort in remembering and honoring the dead.  The idea of people living on in the hearts of those they’ve left behind, may seem cheesy – and certainly isn’t enough to ease the pain of loss – but it’s also very true.  The framing of death as a celebration of life rather than merely a tragedy of loss seems like a wise way to approach one of life’s hardest realities.  I hope by keeping this tradition alive in our family we are not only preserving our cultural history, but also the memories of those we love.

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  1. Thank you so much for this, Sandra.

    Out here in Califas, it’s a lot easier to see Día de los Muertos. In fact, I just walked by the school’s offrenda this morning; it goes up at the beginning of the week every year, and stays up through Nov 1 or 2. Storefronts all around town with sugar skulls and guitarra-playing skeletons. But I feel you.

    I think the act of keeping the dead alive is a complicated one, and very well worth the support of a day or two of larger culture-wide celebration. Likewise I feel we so very much need help acknowledging the life-long journey taken by we who survive them.

    I posted about this at my blog (Ido, pero no olvidado) six years ago, and it feels as apropos now as it did then. That’s the thing about the dead in our lives: they’re really always there.

  2. For the first time, we celebrated Dia De Los Muertos this year because we were looking for something that allowed us to honor this season while also honoring our son who died this year. Because we are in California, it is fairly easy for us to find the celebrations (our city actually had a two-day celebration in the town center with a community offrenda. I imagine this is something we will do every year now, and if we are blessed with another child, I imagine it will be a good way for him/her to somehow “know” his/her older brother or sister who is no longer here. I think it’s a beautiful way to teach children about death and some idea of an afterlife and the relationships we carry on with those who have passed. Thank you for posting this.

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