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Day of the Dead

Celebrating All Souls Day
by Sister Frances Briseño

flowers, candles, photos and other decorations for Dia de los MuertosThe Day of the Dead (el Día de los Muertos), is a Mexican holiday where families welcome back the souls of their deceased relatives for a brief reunion that includes food, drink and celebration. A blend of Mesoamerican ritual, European religion and Spanish culture, the holiday is celebrated each year from October 31- November 2. The roots of the Day of the Dead, celebrated in contemporary Mexico and among those of Mexican heritage in the United States and around the world, go back some 3,000 years, to the rituals honoring the dead in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. The Aztecs and other Nahua people living in what is now central Mexico held a cyclical view of the universe, and saw death as an integral, ever-present part of life.

As a child, growing up in my grandparents’ home, I was introduced to the “spirit world” very naturally. Often, I overheard conversations about how someone in the family had seen a ghost and had engaged it in conversation trying to discover its earthly identity. My grandmother would often tell me that ghosts were not to be feared. Death in our household was a natural as life. I learned early on that the souls of those gone before us were still very close to us. There was a thin veil between this world and the other. It is, therefore, no coincidence that I became a Benedictine where the Rule of Benedict tells us in Chapter 4, “Keep death daily before your eyes.” He doesn’t say this to be morbid, but to remind us that life and death are of one piece and we must remember both sides of life daily. It is his guidance, not to cling to what appears permanent, but rather to remain open to the full continuum of life.

The two most devotional days in our home were Ash Wednesday and All Souls Day. Both days are a powerful reminder that death is a necessary part of life. All Souls Day trumped All Saints Day in our household. My grandmother told us that all Souls day was about regular people like us. It was about our relatives. On this day we had the opportunity to connect with our loved ones, to remember their memory and to celebrate their lives.  We made huge efforts to go to Mass on that day. We might not always make it, but never did we miss going to the cemetery to visit the graves of all our loved ones. On that day we would take fresh flowers and sometimes bring the favorite food or drink or memento of our relative and spend as much time as we could visiting not only the graves of those who had died, but visiting with our neighbors and friends who were also there. The cemetery was transformed into a beautiful garden with vibrant colors as the different flowers were placed on the graves. Looking back on it with the eyes of a child, it was a day full of wonderful stories of our relatives, some of whom we knew and others we had never met. It was a day of praying the rosary, of crying and laughing. To this day when I remember our visits to the cemetery, my soul reminds me of the warmth and love shared by all present. I miss the ritual of those visits.

As a child, I was never told about the tradition behind this ritual. All I knew was that it was a part of our way of life. I was truly shocked when I discovered that not everybody celebrates All Souls Day in this manner. I was also surprised to find out that many people never return to visit the grave site of their family members. This special day holds many powerful memories for me and the ritual of visiting and having conversations with our loved ones, makes the day sacred. I had a really hard time letting go of this tradition after I entered the convent and could no longer accompany my family to the cemetery. In my early years of formation as a religious, I spent many hours at the cemetery on our grounds. Each time I would visit the graves of all the Sisters who had died, I was reminded of All Souls Day at home.

The gift that I received from my grandmother to view death as part of life which was reinforced with Chapter 4 of the Rule of Benedict, has allowed me to walk with many people during their most difficult moments of saying goodbye to their loved ones.  The moment of transition from this life to the next is a very holy, very sacred moment. Often times for just a moment, the veil that separates heaven and earth is temporarily opened up and the person begins to call out to someone they see, but we cannot see, begins to reach out to the image they see, knowing that they have been sent to transport her/him to the next life. Heaven touches earth for a moment. What a grace to experience such an event! Life is sacred; death is sacred.

As we prepare to celebrate All Souls Day, let us take time to remember all our loved ones that have gone before us. Let us remember that they continue to be a part of our lives. We carry them in our hearts and on this day we celebrate their lives and give thanks to God for placing us in their path. My prayer for you is that you would find time on this day to visit their graves and if that is not possible to engage a friend or family member in conversation about what their lives meant to you.

May They Rest in Peace!

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