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Soul on Fire: Embracing the spiritual practice of Dia de los Muertos

When you talk about spirituality, past lives, contact with the deceased and looking into the future are typical topics. There is folklore and folly, especially when we are approaching Halloween. Or All Saints Day. Or the Day of the Dead. This column has covered many local haunts such as Questhaven and Harmony Grove, and the Spiritualist Church in Encinitas.

Humans have always had a morbid curiosity as to what’s happening on the “other side.” People want closure, and they have developed deep bonds of love with those who have passed on before them. They carry the thought of them in their hearts.

Usually, this is something that isn’t celebrated in American culture. It has stayed secret and personal for centuries and only recently has come to the forefront as something to be celebrated. Death was taboo. Grief is even more so, an emotion people don’t know what to do with. Especially these days.

With its growing popularity across cultures, I wanted to understand the spiritual importance of this rich traditional two-day event, celebrated on Nov. 1-2.

I grew up Catholic, and I heard of All Souls Day, but we sure weren’t having a party about it.

Not so in Mexico. The earliest roots of this celebration of life, or Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), began some 3,000 years ago with origins linked to the Aztecs. For people of Mexican heritage, Dia is a national holiday. And that holiday is quickly spreading throughout America and is being shared cross-culturally. And I’m not mad about it.

Día de los Muertos is a joyful festivity for families and the community. It is a time when relatives gather to honor and remember deceased loved ones. It is believed that the souls of the dead return to visit the living families in homes, businesses and cemeteries.

The spirits are believed to depart the following day, Nov. 2. If you’ve ever watched Disney’s “Coco,” you’ve gotten a taste of this festival.

Entire Mexican families construct traditional ofrendas (altars, offerings) that reflect a mixture of Catholicism and ancient Mexican/Aztec cultural practices. The altars vary greatly, depending on the village and regional traditions.

Anything can be placed on the altar for the visiting souls, including traditional food, fresh flowers, pan de Muerto (or bread for the dead), candles, copal incense (aromatic tree resin), fruits, photographs, favorite drinks of the deceased, sugar folk toys, religious images and clothing.

Decorations also include tombstones, skulls, skeletons made of clay and other materials, sugar skulls, and artistically cut paper called papel picado.

Most importantly, a photograph of the departed soul is placed on the altar. The pan de muerto is sweet and baked in the shapes of skulls and human figures. Traditional loaves are round with a central raised knob of dough, representing the skull, with crossed bone-shaped decorations.  Día de los Muertos also includes traditional dishes, such as chicken in red or black mole sprinkled with sesame seeds; tortillas, tamales made from ground corn; soft drinks or aguardiente (“white lightning” liquor), tequila, and always a glass of water. It is believed that the returning souls are thirsty after a long journey. Water is also believed to be the primary support of life.

The flower of the dead is called cempasúchil (Náhuatl, or Aztec, name for marigold). Cempasúchil was the symbolic flower of death for the Aztecs because once it is cut, it dies quickly. While orange and yellow marigolds are the central flowers, baby’s breath are traditionally displayed. Copal (tree resin) is used as incense and is a symbolic transformation of the physical to the supernatural, associated with the death of the soul returning to the altar.

The name of each departed is written on a sugar skull. These sugar skulls are eaten, so the living come to associate pleasant sensations with the sadness of death. The names of the living are also written on these treats to introduce children to the idea of death in an atmosphere of joyful celebration. Candles and fresh marigold flowers are placed on the altar to light and guide the way of the souls to the altar. Paths are marked with flower petals showing the departed souls the way to the altar.

Living with death in this way means that Mexicans learn to accept death as part of life. It is believed that as long as you remember the departed, they stay alive in spirit.

I am not trying to misappropriate the Mexican culture but learning about this rich tradition is inspiring and uplifting to my soul. With this newfound knowledge of the spiritual significance of this festival, I look forward to participating in one of the many that are being offered in our county this year.