As many of you may know, this past week was Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. It’s a three-day Latino holiday celebrated from October 31 – November 2 that honors dead family members, friends, and public figures, incorporating an element of fun into it to make the passing of loved ones less painful. For a really good look into the holiday, click here.
One of the most interesting festivals Lexington has is the Festival del Dia de los Muertos hosted by the Living Arts and Science Center (LASC), a nonprofit, educational and arts organization that does some really great work. LASC has been hosting the Festival for nine years now, and does an amazing job of making it a fun, interactive event for the whole family. They have traditional Mexican dances performed by Lexington dance companies, skull face painting, sugar skull decorating, various other crafts for kids, and, the highlight of the whole event (in my opinion, anyway), a candlelight procession to the Old Episcopal Burying Ground, where artists and organizations from thorough Lexington have prepared altars with traditional Latino symbolism.
What makes the altars so unique is that the people creating them do not have to be Latino or Catholic, encouraging non-Latinos and non-Catholics to learn more about Dia de los Muertos and tap into a tradition hundreds of years old to honor their own dearly departed. As always, some try harder than others, actually researching the importance of candles (to welcome the spirits back), marigolds (their strong fragrance leads the dead back), copal incense, salt (represents the continuance of life), and pan de muerto (a sweet “bread of the dead”) while others cut out clunky papel picado, carve pumpkins, and call it a day. The importance, however, is not in getting your altar “right” but in creating a community in which we can share our cultures and come together to celebrate and remember our dead. Accordingly, people at the cemetery are always sweet and helpful and willing to talk with you, to tell you about their son or their abuelita or Frida Kahlo.
In many ways, these altars (and Dia de los Muertos in general) seem like the “right” way to celebrate and remember our dead. In modern American society, death and aging are usually viewed with horror and are something we go to great lengths to avoid. The passage of a loved one is met with grief, and our burial rights are correspondingly somber. We cry and speak in hushed tones, repeatedly telling the person’s closest loved ones how sorry we are for them. It is rare that we laugh and wearing brightly colored clothes and talk about all the good they did in the world and our happiest memories. It always seems wrong.
Dia de los Muertos shows us gringos that there is another way to love and respect those who have passed and that we need not accept their deaths with horror. It reminds us that joy and life are the proper ways to commemorate our loved ones, not black crepe paper and refusing to visit our cemeteries. And, at least for me, it helps me feel closer to those who have passed. If I am allowed to be alive and happy, it is easier for me to talk to the dead and let them know that I still love and remember them. I feel more at ease in a cemetery brightly lit with candles and festooned in pink, green, and blue. It is a place I want to go to, and the dead are people I want to commune with.
So if you have the opportunity to attend LASC’s Festival del Dia de los Muertos or a Dia de los Muertos festival in your own town, I highly recommend it. I think that you will enjoy it, and, even better, leave with a sense of calm and peace because Dia de los Muertos is not just for our dead, it’s for the living too.
* All pictures have been taken by me.