So This Is Death? A Reflection on Dia de Muertos
When you can see age 60 creeping up like a specter, you might catch yourself dwelling on those comforting platitudes about aging that you’ve been dismissing all your life. You might recognize some of them:
- “You’re only as young as you feel.”
- “For the unlearned, old age is winter; for the learned, it is the season of the harvest.”
- “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”
You begin to understand why these bromides exist: to provide comfort amid a growing awareness of mortality — your own and that of your loved ones. But they all feel like desperate whistling in the dark to me, especially if you’ve seen elderly people compromised by the ravages of dementia. Do these pearls of wisdom apply to them, too?
1 The Embrace of Mortality
I take comfort not in the Hallmark wisdom but in honoring the memories of those who have already accepted mortality’s embrace. Each year, my wife Jan and I celebrate Day of the Dead by visiting the largely Hispanic Pilsen neighborhood in Chicago, where Day of the Dead is known as Dia de Muertos. We especially remember Jan’s parents, Norm and Marion, kind people from the Silent Generation whose lives were shaped by the Great Depression and World War II. Norm worked in insurance. Marion ran the home. They listened to Nat King Cole to unwind, and Norm drank the occasional Old Fashioned. In the summer, they vacationed in the Wisconsin Northwoods, where they knew every fishing hole and supper club around. They went to church, lived lives of service, and provided for their children. They taught me what it means for a married couple to live together, grow old together, and die.
When Norm and Marion were the age Jan and I are now, I was in college. I was reeling from the convulsive breakup of my parents’ marriage, the crumbling of my family, and a personal alienation from the oppressive culture at the school I attended, Southern Methodist University in Dallas. I eventually transferred to the University of Illinois and rebooted my life. The personal turmoil left its mark, making me a more passive, less adventurous person. But with Jan I found stability and a deep, abiding love that I needed to live a richer life. Now we have a daughter (our only child) in college, on her own journey. When Marion was a child, we tried to be the kind of parents to her that Norm and Marion were to Jan, always there for her without intruding. Now that she is gone, I wonder where her journey will take her and what our own role as her parents will be. We are at a stage in our life where we are letting go of things in different ways: saying goodbye to people who left a mark on us even if we did not know them (I grieved when Peter Fonda passed away recently), and unloading material things that no longer matter. There is also personal growth. We both write creatively. I act in a Renassaince faire during the summers. Jan is learning how to play guitar. In 2013, I launched my own business after being laid off twice in three years. Starting out on my own at age 50 was terrifying, but so was getting laid off. Today both of us enjoy our work, and we work hard. There are bills to pay and a retirement to save for. There is also hope for a meaningful future for our daughter.
2 Aztecs and Marigolds
On November 2, an unseasonably cold day, we bundled up and drove from our suburban neighborhood to the vibrant streets of Pilsen. We live 24 miles southwest of Pilsen, and our drive takes us from leafy, largely white suburban neighborhoods to a land of walk-up flats, old warehouses, feral cats, Hispanics lunching in restaurants, and brick walls adorned with murals. We visit Pilsen because of the cultural significance of Dia de Muertos here: to experience Dia de Muertos in Pilsen is to get closer to the holiday’s Mexican roots. Dia de Muertos is the hub of Pilsen life during its annual commemoration. The day explodes with color and sound — people with faces painted in bright, bold strokes; vibrant dresses; young women adorned in Aztec headdresses dancing to the boom-boom-boom of drums in Dvorak Park; decorated skulls found in shops everywhere; and orange marigolds placed in public parks to create paths for returning dead souls. In Dvorak Park, an annual celebration known as Muertos de la Risa (“dead of laughter,” a reference to the joyous nature of the event) culminates in a procession on 18th Street.
These traditions have taken on special significance in recent years. Hispanics became the majority population in Pilsen in the 1970s. But now they are leaving. More than 10,000 Hispanics have left Pilsen since 2000, and the number of whites moving in is growing. Rents are skyrocketing for long-time residents. With an influx of non-Hispanic renters, shop owners, and land owners, tensions have risen between the legacy residents and the newcomers. In that context, the Dia de Muertos celebration feels as much like an affirmation of the traditions of the people who have lived here for decades now as it does a celebration of departed souls.
As Jan and I explored the Pilsen streets, though, none of that tension was evident. We visited the National Museum of Mexican Art, jammed with visitors eager to tour the elaborate ofrendas, or altars for the dead. The ofrendas are festooned with marigolds and belongings of dead loved ones, along with special pan de los muertos, a sweet soft bread baked for the dead souls to eat on their return for their temporary return to be with the living.
At the museum, we learned of the Dance of the Devils, a special dance performed by masked people in some sections of Mexico.
They brought to mind the demonic afterlife some of us raised in Christian traditions believe in and fear — fear of evil, and fear of becoming part of that evil by being cast into a lake of fire like the book of Revelation says will happen to unrepentant souls, burning for all eternity.
Visiting Pilsen year after year has slowly helped me let go of the idea of death as a binary choice between heaven and hell, and a permanent separation from your loved ones. Dia de Muertos promises that the dead remain connected to the living once a year through the tributes of the living to the dead. Whenever I view the fancy ofrendas in the museum, I wonder what mine would consist of: no doubt a stack of vinyl albums (the Doors and Led Zeppelin would be essential), a coffee cup, baseball cards, a Bible, and books about music. And, it must be said truthfully, an iPhone.
3 My Son Loved to Fish
If the museum gave us a starting-off point, the streets of Pilsen brought the day alive. The sidewalks were something like a carnival, with revelers, their faces painted to suggest colorful skulls, walking amid costumed partygoers gathering for late Halloween celebrations in bars.
At St. Procopius Church on 18Th Street, across from a popular music venue known as Thalia Hall, we came across a courtyard dotted with facsimiles of headstones, aligned to form the suggestion of a cemetery. The headstones were in fact ofrendas decorated with touchstones of past lives: hats, coffee cups, fruit, beer bottles, and photos of smiling faces. Some of the ofrendas were decorated with blinking lights.
Plastic orange marigolds were aligned in the grass to form a path leading up to a religious painting adorning a wall of the church. Above us, papel picado, or small, square, flags, formed a colorful latticework. They reminded me of Tibetan prayer flags. Near the painting, a large screen projected images of loved ones passed. People mingled about, stopping at the ofrendas, talking to each other, capturing the scene with photos and video. I, too, recorded the memorial with my iPhone. At first I hesitated. Was it right to turn someone’s tribute to the dead into a tiny image for my Facebook and Instagram friends to see? Was I cheapening something holy? On the other hand, so many people were doing exactly what I was doing, which doesn’t make it right, but no one seemed to mind. It was as if the recording of the event was introducing the dead to the digital world, too.
I paused and examined a simple ofrenda composed of candy, a crucifix, and one of those plastic bass fish that sing when you press a button. A color photo depicted a smiling Spanish man in his 30s. The photo was partly covered by rosary beads placed on the makeshift headstone. The name Richard Lopez, Jr., was printed in a cursive type on a piece of white paper with the letters DEP (the Spanish equivalent of RIP) above it. The paper was stapled to the headstone.
I heard a voice behind me. “My son loved to fish.”
I turned around. A short woman with jet-black hair, greying in the fringes, smiled slightly. I put away my iPhone and turned to her.
“What a beautiful ofrenda,” I said. I nodded toward the piles of sweets beneath the fish. “Your son must have loved candy.”
“Oh yes,” she sighed. “But he lived for fishing.”
I knelt and examined an elaborate crucifix. A delicately painted Christ figure stared up at me.
“This is beautiful,” I said.
“But it’s broken,” she replied.
“That’s OK,” I said. “It has been loved.”
I sensed that she was done talking but perhaps not done sharing. I stood beside her for a few minutes, not saying anything.
“I am drawn to your ofrenda,” I said, before turning to leave. She smiled wordlessly.
4 Can You Do Something for Me?
Jan and I then left and walked to Dvorak Park to witness the Muertos de la Risa celebration. The day was getting darker and colder, but the chill did not stop a crowd from forming in front of the ElevArte Community Studio. Dancers paying an homage to the Aztecs hopped and gyrated with smoke from a small fire swirling at their feet.
Women, men, and children in face paint gathered around them, their cameras held aloft to record the dancers. People bunched together in the cold, holding aloft large, colorful signs fashioned to look like sugar skulls on sticks, waiting for the annual procession to start and make its way to 18th Street a few blocks north.
As I watched the dancers, I thought of Richard Lopez, Jr., perhaps his spirit back on 18th Street standing alongside his mother, breathing words of comfort in her ear. Who was Richard Lopez, Jr.? Why and how did he die?
Near me in a playground, I noticed a tall man dressed in black with his face painted orange. He stood out easily, standing on a stoop amid scampering children playing on sliding boards. I was drawn to his darkness.
I walked over to him.
“May I take your picture?” I asked.
He nodded. He never made eye contact or moved from his perch. I looked up and got my photo, feeling like perhaps he had just tolerated me.
I started to walk away. He looked down at me.
“Can you do something for me?” he asked. He explained that he was watching his son in the playground. He wanted a document of himself for his own camera. He gave me his smartphone and instructed me to shoot a brief video.
“Portrait or landscape?” I asked.
“Portrait,” he said. “This is for Instagram.”
He wanted to look natural. So I showed him where I thought he would look best and told him to just walk around and turn to the camera for a few seconds to frame the final shot.
When we were done, we huddled around the video footage, and he nodded in approval without saying a word.
A few minutes later, I spotted him with his son as they joined the crowd forming the Muertos de la Risa parade. For a fleeting moment, we made eye contact. He nodded ever so slightly and then dissolved into the parade of celebrants. For a few minutes, I walked with the crowd, bodies swirling around me. Then I stopped and pointed my camera at the marchers as they moved forward en masse like a river, some of their faces cracking smiles when they saw me filming, but most walking with stoic expressions, looking neither sad nor happy. Somehow Jan and I had become separated by the parade, but we reunited on 18th Street and returned to the St. Procopius Church courtyard.
It was now dark and very cold. But the courtyard was even more lively. Four people in face paint and headdress beat drums, and one blew a horn. Then they quieted down as a priest delivered a homily in Spanish. Next to him, an old man stood alone, his weathered face looking impassive and lonely. It was time to go home.
5 The Taste of Fear
When I awoke Sunday morning, Richard Lopez, Jr., was on my mind. I went online and looked for him. Surely there was a record of his life somewhere. But no matter how hard I searched, he remained a mystery. There was no record of him having existed anywhere. But someone had loved him enough to stand sentinel over his ofrenda and tell a stranger about him.
Later that afternoon, I found myself driving alone to Pilsen. Jan needed to be elsewhere, and I wanted to head back before the weekend ended, while the last vestiges of Dia de Muertos still lingered. I wanted to visit Richard’s ofrenda to see if I could find some detail about him that might offer a clue. When I arrived, the courtyard was quiet. Bright pennants and wooden figures still decorated the yard, and the faux headstones remained. But many of the ofrendas had been removed. I knelt beside Richard Lopez’s. It was empty save for the stapled piece of paper.
I walked through the courtyard, alone. The celebration had moved on. No longer did celebrants stand amid the ofrendas and fill the air with their music and talk. The spirits had left for their homes in the afterlife. Even though the courtyard was adjacent to 18th Street, the pedestrians and cars seemed like they were on the other side of a glass partition. My only companions were the painting of the religious figure on the church wall and a life-size figurine painted to look like the grim reaper.
So this is death?: being alone, watching the other world through a lens, waiting for someone to draw you back with their ofrendas for a fleeting day. This is the part of death that Dia de Muertos does not address: what happens to the dead in the year between one Dia de Muertos and the next. If you believe the Dance of the Devils that we saw in the museum, demons escort the spirits home, but what happens after that? The movie Coco imagined an afterlife full of celebration as with life on earth, but standing alone in the courtyard, I could imagine only a dark separation. And do all spirits get called back to earth for Dia de Muertos? They say you don’t die until the last person on earth who can say your name dies. When there is no one to draw you back even in their minds, are you then truly dead?
This isolation comes not only in death, but in entering final chapter of your life that we try to sugarcoat with folksy wisdom. Aging is about fear. The fear of outliving your means of living. Of the inevitable decay of your body and loss of those around you — the isolation creeping in. Of becoming irrelevant as the things you know become dated in a world of rapidly changing technology. Of being forgotten. Fear of growing old and withering away is at the heart of every Baby Boomer’s angry reaction to “OK Boomer.” The phrase hits us where we are vulnerable.
6 The Ofrendas Are Being Taken Away
I noticed a young couple with a small child had walked into the courtyard. They looked kind and quiet. No longer was I alone in the dark in a makeshift cemetery.
“The ofrendas are being taken away,” I said aloud. The man turned to me while the woman kept her eye on their child, scampering around the courtyard.
“They will all be gone by Monday,” he said. “We all come here on Friday to honor the lost children, and Saturday to honor the adults who have passed on. It is all over now.”
He introduced himself as Francisco and then his wife Victoria and their daughter Cattleya. They lived in the Little Village neighborhood on 26th Street.
“We have an ofrenda at home for my grandmother,” he said. “Victoria baked the special bread.” He told me his grandmother had helped raise him to live a clean life, including going to church regularly.
“We have decorated the ofrenda with Coca-Cola bottles,” Victoria said. “Glass bottles. Mexicans drink Coke out of bottles.”
“It is good that you remember,” I said. “We so often forget the important people in our lives when they are gone.”
“There is no forgetting my grandmother,” Francisco said. “I just wish she were here to see little Cattleya.”
Victoria said Cattleya was only one year old, and she was already bursting with energy. She was not afraid of the skulls, figurines, and casket in the courtyard. “Oh, she loves all this,” said Victoria. “She saw Coco and loved it, all the color and celebration.”
I told them of our own daughter, away at college for the first time in upstate New York. Making a life of her own now.
“New York is so cold!” Victoria said. “Her home now.”
“We celebrate family in the Little Village,” Francisco said, “But the Little Village is changing like Pilsen is.” He did not need to explain what “changing like Pilsen” meant. He was talking about people like me moving in.
“The older people of the Little Village do not like the change,” he said. “But the change means growth. One less abandoned building. Less trouble.”
I thought of the recent tragedy that had occurred on Halloween: a 7-year-old girl shot in the neck while trick or treating in the Little Village on the very street where Francisco, Victoria, and Cattleya live. Neither of us spoke of it.
“Little Village will change just as Pilsen has,” he said. Then he nodded to the ofrendas. “These traditions will stay.”
I asked them if I could take a selfie for my Facebook page. They obliged, smiling. We all said goodbye to each other, and I stood alone again. Then I heard Victoria’s voice.
“David, may we find you on Facebook?” We friended each other, one tenuous way to hold on to the moment, a record for us to pass along until after we are gone and someone decides to take down our page. Perhaps we really die when our selfies finally disappear from the internet.
“I’ll post the selfie later on,” I said. I watched the papel picado above me flap in the breeze.
All photos and video content are supplied by the author
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