Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) — More Than Skin and Bones

Meet Kim, our co-producing bilingual, bicultural, artist & collaborator… she lives in Mexico with her inspiring daughter and husband, though she is originally from Texas. How lucky I am to have crossed paths with this gem…and what a joy it was to record with her. Until I see you next, dear Kim. Thank you for sharing your beautiful perspective…
 ~ Amy, November 2015

Photo by Russell Monk

“Most of our troubles are due to our passionate desire for and attachment to things that we misapprehend as enduring entities.” ~Dalai Lama

Elliot Smith, one of my favorite songwriters of modern times, died by suicide October 21, 2003. I was devastated. I had been living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico since the end of 2001 after the attacks on 911. Elliot Smith’s music had been a true place of solace for me. Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) was coming soon, and I and my boyfriend, who later became my husband, wanted to make an ofrenda (offering) in honor of Smith and others who had crossed over.

We lived on Calle Recreo (recreation street) and our large bay-like window was perfect for an altar. We arranged Hendrix records, photos, and other items imbued with our love and appreciation for those we honored. We were simply and intuitively creating our altar and were deeply moved to do so as a way to navigate grief, loss and acceptance of our own mortality.

After 14 years living in Mexico and making it my home, I have come to learn much more about how Día de Muertos is embraced and revered. Concha Estudiante has worked for us for almost 10 years. Every year she and her enormous family visit the graves of loved ones and make offerings. They begin on November first, Día de Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels), where they honor lost children.

Concha explains: “On Day of the Angels, we go to the panteón (cemetery). We bring flowers, sugar figures of little sheep and other items to the tombs. It is very sad for me because I lost a baby boy eleven years ago. It is something so special you have with you for nine months…he will always be in my heart.”

Photo by Russell Monk

November 2nd is Día de Muertos, and adults who have died are honored. With a sense of mourning, but also a joyous celebration of life, the town buzzes with activities. Paper cut-out streamers (papel picado), cempasuchil or marigolds (whose fragrant and colorful orange flowers are said to draw the attention of the dead), sugar skulls and skeletons (which are meant to amuse children), pan de muertos (bread of the dead), velas (candles), fruits and nuts, tequila (lots of tequila), and other favorite drinks of the dead, all blanket cemeteries, street corners, doorways and windows. It is a time to share, speak, cry and laugh with lost loved ones as if they were still here among us.

Photo by Russell Monk

Concha Estudiante: “My mother makes an altar at her house every year. I don’t make an altar because it is takes a lot of money to make one. It takes a whole box of candles to make an altar like that. On Day of the Dead, we bring cups of water to rest on the tombs. I put a certain amount of water in the cups, and when we look again the water has gone down. Who knows for sure, but I think they (the dead) are drinking the water. Whatever the case, we will never forget them.”

In San Miguel de Allende, La Calaca Festival (The Skeleton Festival) celebrates its fourth year as a multi-disciplinary participatory arts and music festival honoring and complementing Día de MuertosLa Calaca combines the joy, beauty and deep emotional connections that are part of Día de Muertos.

Photo by Russell Monk

Klaudia Oliver, one of the co-founders of La Calaca Festival, explains: “By gaining inspiration from the rich traditions of the Day of the Dead and applying the elements of reverence, creativity, transcendence and community engagement, our aim at La Calaca is to teach our new generations and people from different cultures, the importance of remembering our dead, and through that process, gain a healthy perspective and understanding of the cycles of life.”

“Human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but…life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.” ~ Gabriel García Márquez

Día de Muertos and all its colorful iconography and rich history is simply brilliant. However, we can see from the trendy t-shirts to candy packagingthat Día de Muertos has made its way into the mainstream. I believe we are in a position as multi-culturals to do our part to ensure the deeper meaning of Día de Muertos is not lost.

In the act of remembering the dead, we are offered an opportunity to reflect upon those we’ve loved and lost. For others with whom we may have unresolved issues, perhaps we learn to let them go. We have a chance — -by reflecting on their likes and dislikes and paying attention to the details of that relationship — -to go deeper into our own psyche. Shame, anger, envy or whatever is suppressed can be observed. If we are constantly emphasizing the separateness of ourselves in relation to death, we miss out on a deeper experience.

Somehow we have taught ourselves that the more we separate from our body (food addictions, alcoholism, materialism, etc.) the more we separate ourselves from death. We inhabit our bodies only temporarily, and death is simply a stage in an eternal cycle of energy. When we begin to look at death as part of us we find that we are not as separate from the world as we may have thought.

It is crucial not to simply scratch the surface of Dia de Muertos by donning painted skull faces, but to really dive deep into our own hearts. There is a great opportunity in this world where cultures are colliding to glimpse — -in our own reflection — -the great mystery of life, and through this honoring of the dead, find ourselves reborn. By pulling together and integrating the separate parts of ourselves, it is clear: We are more than just skin and bones.

Photo by Russell Monk

Thank you Russell Monk for the beautiful images.

~ Kim Powell

This post was originally published on Medium.com