Autumn is my favourite time of year. It’s often frantically busy with work, but when I have a chance to lift my head up from year-end responsibilities, I savour the reminders of abundance, the wealth of the harvest in this corner of the world, and the crisp cool air is refreshing to me after the hazy heat of summer and the bitter cold of winter. Throughout the world this season is associated with the plenty of harvest as well as the oncoming death of winter. All of which has me thinking of how death and remembrance are a part of our work as estates and trust professionals and as friends and family members.
We often see how the rituals of death and remembrance can be the source of strife amongst the families we work with: how to deal with funeral plans, how and where to memorialize a loved one, how to divide up a loved one’s cherished belongings and wealth. In Canada, many of the funeral and memorial decisions rest ultimately with an executor, but generally fall into decisions about cremation, burial, headstones, memorial plaques, religious and social gatherings. After interment and installation of markers, sometimes, that is the end of our group interaction with final resting places. Future visitations are often solo, private affairs and certainly in my not-practicing Protestant experience, there are no community rituals at which grief and loss are explored.
Looking south to Mexico (and having in mind that we are on the eve of Halloween), we can see that there are communities that have annual, communal, celebrations of their collective lost ones. I am speaking of the Day of the Dead, or Dia De Los Muertos.
Dia De Los Muertos is a holiday traditional celebrated in Mexico on November 1 and 2 (although the lead up of celebrations begins in the last few days of October). The holiday is a community-wide embrace of the memories of deceased relatives, combining Aztec, Catholic and modern beliefs and imagery, public celebrations, home altars and quiet vigils in cemeteries. It is believed that on the day of the dead the membrane that separates us from the spirits of those who have died before us becomes permeable, and the souls of the dead are able to visit the land of the living to feast, drink, dance and enjoy music with their loved ones.[i]
There are iconic images that one associates with Dia De Los Muertos (many of which have become inspiration for Halloween costumes) – the ‘calavera catrina’[ii], also known as the elegant skull, represented in painted faces at many public celebrations, the sugar skulls. Ofretas, or altars, are decorated in many homes. Ofretas often include candles, pictures of loved ones, foods and drink favoured by loved ones, pan de muerto (bread of the dead), and richly coloured flowers. Marigolds are everywhere. Woven into crowns, decorating ofretas, used in the construction of floral arches, garlands, wreaths and decorating gravesites, the marigold symbolizes the brevity of life and is a ubiquitous symbol of Dia De Los Muertos.
I had the opportunity to visit Oaxaca Mexico, to observe and photograph Dia De Los Muertos in 2018, and I left grateful for the generosity of those who shared their stories with me, as well as feeling that somehow, having an annual celebration of death, loss, grief and the joy that we had with those lost ones, is a very healthy thing.
In the evenings leading up to October 31, the streets of the old city in Oaxaca are filled with boisterous parades. Brass bands, catrinas, calaveras, dancing, mezcal, families of all ages, parade through the streets in the days leading up to the end of the month.
On the evening of October 31, many Oaxacans attend their lost ones’ graves for an overnight visit. Walking into the Panteon General, also known as San Miguel cemetery, just around dusk on October 31, I was immediately overcome with emotion. For my lost ones and for the emotional impact of seeing people begin to assemble around graves with radios, food, drink, blankets, flowers and candles. Bushels of orange and red flowers, hundreds of large pillar candles, decorated grave tops and although the cemetery was packed with celebrants and voyeurs, a respectful silence. Throughout the night I could hear music (in fact at some cemeteries there is a stage set up and live music is played until the wee hours), I could see families move from joy to tears, back to laughter and back again to somber silence. It felt deeply personal and deeply communal, and I wished that we had a way to haul our grief out with our friends and neighbours in a collective way here in Canada.
On November 2, many places have final celebrations, where the costumes are more menacing, the atmosphere more boisterous, and the fireworks prominent, as the spirits are encouraged to return to their world, leaving behind their survivors for another year.
By then many of the marigold decorations are wilted and tattered, the perfect symbolism of another year’s remembrances. I am going to try to round up some marigolds this October 31, and bring a little Dia De Los Muertos celebration to my own home, mixing a bit of mezcal, grief and joy together to remember my lost ones.
Jane Martin, Estate and Trust Consultant Team Lead
[i] Exact celebrations vary throughout Mexico and there is academic debate about whether Dia De Los Muertos traditions have pre-colonial roots. Luckily, we do not need to engage in that debate today.