How to Celebrate the Day of the Dead
Drape a small table with a cloth in the favorite color of the person you loved who has died. Adorn it with candles, flowers (marigolds are traditional) and framed photographs. Set out some favorite foods: a slice of pie, a bottle of beer, a Milky Way. Add the instruments of their hobbies and vices: a pack of Newports, a deck of cards, a banjo. A People magazine, a racquet, a Terrible Towel. A copy of Peter Pan, of The Joy of Cooking, of the Bible.
The ofrenda, as this shrine is called in Spanish, can be simple or elaborate. Set it up on November 1; leave it as long as you like. You can make one every year, you can make different ones for different people, you can do it once and not again. When importing traditions, there’s plenty of flexibility. When we set one up for my husband Tony in ’94, it wasn’t on the right day and there was a pair of ice skates still dangling from the ceiling six months later.
In Mexico, the Dia de los Muertos is a holiday for dead people and those who mourn them. At home there are ofrendas and tamales for friends who stop by; in the streets, there is a procession to the cemetery (in parts of Texas, this is a low-rider parade); at night, music and feasting and games of dice among the graves. In the markets there is merch galore: frosted breads, skull-shaped candies, blackware candleholders and incense burners, little wooden figures of Catrin and Catrina, the skeleton lovers.
It may seem strange to celebrate mourning. Many of us can barely tolerate it, much less party with it. Grief is heavy, it is leaden, but it is also as insidious as gas — formless, ubiquitous, difficult to contain. It is chemical warfare for the spirit. Day of the Dead doesn’t solve any of this but it at least makes a tolerable space within it, declares a temporary armistice, a one-day treaty.
I have seen friends broken by grief, broken like a vase, a car, a bone. They can hardly go on and only do so because they have certain responsibilities that tether them to life. While there is no way to actually help these people, because when for example one’s child dies there is no help for it ever, I believe it is part of our job to keep them company. Despite the shame of our wholeness, of our children who are unharmed, despite the fear of saying something wrong, despite the fact that these people are now part zombie, and have little wish to be otherwise, despite the astounding awkwardness created by a horrible fact that won’t go away or succumb to our desire for things to be good and getting better all the time, we should still find a way to show up.
A few weeks ago, I heard of a thirteen-year-old boy run over by a car in Brooklyn, a week before his bar mitzvah. He was waiting to go to soccer practice, wearing his uniform and cleats, when his ball rolled out in the street. There had been various initiatives to slow down traffic on this street for years.
Often it is like this, some bitter ironic accident that shouldn’t have happened, and just as often it is not like this at all, it is drinking or drugs or murder or suicide. Whatever it is, when you hear about it, your heart flies to Brooklyn, to Pittsburgh, to Newtown or to India in an instant.
This much we can rely on, the quick spread of shock and sympathy through friends and acquaintances, neighborhoods and communities, rippling out to friends of friends and faraway strangers, to people who read about it in the newspaper or see it on TV. The caring reflex follows right behind it. Most everyone wants to do something, to reach out, to make some acknowledgment. And so the avalanche begins, the shower of food, flowers, donations, cards, gifts, practical assistance, gatherings, memorials. There might be a petition or a meeting, a committee formed to address the problem. There might be a candlelight vigil or a pile of stuffed bears. Surely, there will be articles. Sometimes, discussion of a lawsuit.
This goes on for a few months, and then it largely stops. The bereaved people welcome this moment, unable to tolerate any more sympathy and attention. How are you doing? Any better? friends ask, and often don’t want to hear the truth.
At this point many of them disappear, never to return. Others try to hang around.
It could be five years before the vise loosens a notch, before the first flicker of relief is felt. One deep, clear breath. In the time warp after the worst thing in the world, says my friend Beverly, ten years is one year.
Think of that.
But one year is worse than nothing, really, with its time-release payload of birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, Thanksgiving, Christmas. Three-hundred sixty-five days of the dead, one of them the Day of the Dead, when loss is normal, when acting crazy is understood, when fetishizing an unraveling green sweater, an old key ring, the smell of a certain after-shave is recommended.
The Day of the Dead is brought to you by the people who gave us breakfast tacos, Frida Kahlo, and tequila. Maybe it too will catch on here.