Today we celebrate the Day of the Dead, an ancient Mexican festival. Why in the world, you might be thinking, would we celebrate death? Why now, would we celebrate death? Death is a part of our lives -- for many, often an uncomfortable, feared, unwelcomed part. Yet we all experience it. Some Native Americans say that death lives just over our left shoulder and if we pay attention, every so often we can sense it. That is not a bad thing. Life is finite; life is precious and if we think of it that way we will treat it that way. Death is a part of our lives that we have to come to terms with, in one way or another. Celebrating the Day of the Dead can help with that.
Shakespeare said, "There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all." (Hamlet)
German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to a friend, "We should not be afraid that our strength is insufficient to endure any experience of death, even the closest and most terrifying. Death is not beyond our strength; it is the measuring line at the vessel's brim: we are full whenever we reach it . . . . I am not saying that we should love death; but we should love life so generously, so without calculation and selection, that we involuntarily come to include, and to love, death too (life's averted half); . . . Only because we exclude death, when it suddenly enters our thoughts, has it become more and more of a stranger to us; and because we have kept it a stranger, it has become our enemy. It is conceivable that it is infinitely closer to us than life itself. What do we know of it?"
What do we know of it indeed? Some of us come to die and we realize that we don't believe the religious teachings we heard about death; we don't know what we believe or what we think. So we panic and suffer untold grief and regret. Some of us fear the pain and suffering and loneliness that might accompany death. Because we don't know much about death, it is so very important to include it in our lives.
Celebrating the Day of the Dead is about remembrance of the loved ones who have died; it is about remembrance of people we don't even know who have died. In remembering we celebrate the gifts of their lives and we honor them. In remembering we divest ourselves of the parts of their lives that were not gifts. Remembering can be a chance to forgive. In remembering we ground ourselves in our past so that we can move into our future. When we mark our history we lift up the continuity in our own lives. We recognize where we come from so that we can better know who we are. Setting aside this time for our dead also helps with our grieving, as it allows it a voice and perhaps, a tear. When someone we love dies, we feel -- some deeply, some not -- sadness and grief and sometimes a whole host of other difficult, uncomfortable emotions, including maybe anger, or a feeling of being alone, of being abandoned, or regret, or relief. Some of us cry, some of us talk, some of us don't talk, some of us get busy doing things, some of us walk around in a fog. We experience grief in our own ways.
Celebrating the Day of the Dead gives us a chance to experience grief, if that's what we need to do. More, celebrating the Day of the Dead helps to move us closer to acceptance of death, both our loved ones' and our own. And when we can remember with some measure of acceptance, how joyful and how freeing are the memories. The Day of the Dead has been celebrated in Mexico, from October 29 through November 2, for centuries. It is a time to remember the dead with joy and to honor them with feasting, processions, pageantry and religious rituals. It combines the Roman Catholic All Souls and All Saints Days with 2,000 year old Mexican Indian traditions. It is a very important time of closeness between the living and the dead. A Mexican folktale relates the story of a man who scoffed at the Day of the Dead and did nothing to mark it. On the closing day of the village celebrations he went out and partied with his friends and late at night, as he made his way home, a parade of dead souls followed him, each carrying the offerings their loved ones had made to them. In the crowd, the man saw his parents, alone among the dead souls, empty-handed. He felt great sadness. He went home and died of grief.
The Day of the Dead has a long history in Mexico. The Aztecs had rituals around the dead. They believed that heaven had thirteen layers and the underworld had nine and that souls went to different layers depending upon how they died. Warriors, for instance, accompanied the sun god and after four years became hummingbirds. Children went to a place with trees that sweat milk. The journey for all souls takes years to complete and so the Aztecs brought the dead food and drink to sustain them, believing that the dead could extract the essence of the offerings and leave the physical remains. On certain days of the year, they invited the dead to come and visit the living.
The more recent Christian customs reflect these ancient indigenous ones. Home altars are made, trimmed with satin cloth and filled with marigolds -- the flower of the dead -- votive candles, offerings of food and drink, photographs, statues of Mary and Jesus, skeletons and skulls made of sugar with the name of the dead on them -- and depictions of the tree of life. There are masquerades and parades. There is a belief that the dead return for a visit. At midday on October 31 the children come and stay until midday November 1, when the adults come. That is All Saints Day, when Catholics pray for the dead. Adults stay until midday November 2, All Souls Day, when Catholics remember the spirits of all sinners who have died. On that day, especially, Mexicans go to the cemetery and sweep and decorate the graves with flowers. They have a party there and some stay all night.
Our service today tries, not to recreate the Mexican holiday, but to learn from its wisdom by making a remembering of our dead. The Rev Mark Belletini writes "Some of us remember with pleasure aunts, uncles, fathers, mothers, friends and lovers, cousins and neighbors, other times and other places: cities and farms, homesteads and rooms, yellow sunsets, chilly sunrises. Some of us find it hard to remember, for the memories that clamor inside us are jagged, like glass we ourselves did not break. Some of us remember people we have never met, but who through history, recent events, book and poem and film and painting have met us and entered the secret chambers of our heart. Some of us remember children, and cannot be comforted. Some of us remember and are set free in our thanksgiving. Some of us remember and are tight with guilt or shame. Some of us struggle daily to remember with greater charity. Some of us weep easily and often. Others weep rarely, but grieve all the same. Some of us are stoic and say, "These things happen." Some of us rail against the unfairness of it all, and clench teeth and fists with discontent. Some of us bear the burden of those who took their own lives, or who suffered greatly at the end. Others among us remember only vast meadows of love and charity in which we played with joy. But all of us remember, whether we speak or are silent, whether we deny or affirm, whether we love or find it hard to love. May the power of love embrace us all, as the curtains between then and now are drawn open for a moment, and the fullness of life impresses itself on us, each in our own way."
In our attempt to keep death at least at arm's length, our cemeteries have become visual symbols of the death industry rather than visual symbols of caring rituals by the living in remembrance of the dead. So we celebrate not because we pretend to be Mexican, but because we know as Unitarian Universalists that we do not have all the answers. By studying others' customs and beliefs we leave ourselves open to new possibilities. Surely something heals within us when we take time to look through boxes or drawers to find a photo of a loved one. Surely something heals within us when we bring that photo here and place it on our altar. Surely something heals within us when we take time to speak of a loved one departed. Surely we need rituals to help us confront what the Rev. Forrest Church calls “the dual reality of being human and mortal.
May it be so.
Day of the Dead, a sermon delivered at 1stUUPB by the Rev. CJ McGregor, Oct 29, 2013