“We know, if only vaguely and inchoately, that our finest and most memorable experiences may never, and indeed, ultimately will never, happen again. That is why we cherish them so.”
― Sheldon Solomon, The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life
Somewhere in your home, in an accessible but out-of-the-way place, there is a small altar. Maybe it’s a shelf, a small table, or the top of a chest of drawers.
On it, are framed pictures of deceased loved ones, friends, beloved pets. Maybe you burn some small candles, light incense, and set out some objects you associate with the departed. Maybe you go so far as to set out some of their favorite food and drink.
If you are Han Chinese, this might be your ancestral shrine, and obeisance is part of your daily routine. If you’re a root-worker of African descent, this might be an altar where you commune and work with spirits. If you’re of Mexican descent, you’re probably celebrating Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead, which is a three day festival from October 31st through November 2nd.
Every culture has its own vagaries when it comes to ancestral remembrance, but Día de Muertos is one of the most recognizable owing to its vivid imagery, pageantry and the titillating blend of beauty and death. Indeed, Día de Muertos is an extremely death-positive celebration, as remembrance is major part of death acceptance; it’s easier to let go when you know you’ll persist in some form.
Before the Spanish conquest, Día de Muertos took place in summer and was associated with Aztec feast days. Like most pagan holidays, these feast days were co-opted by Catholics, in this case to coincide with the Western Christian triduum of Allhallowtide: All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. The Día de Muertos we know today has been shaped by, and persisted in spite of that Christian colonization, and represents an opportunity as part of a growing movement to reclaim traditional celebrations from the subjugating talons of Christianity.
Most importantly, the Day of the Dead unites the living community in ritual celebration and provides an opportunity to reflect on the lives of the deceased, contemplate ones lineage, and consider one’s own mortality. From an anthropological perspective, this is something humans have always done communally.
Americans in particular have lost their connection to death and mourning in the last century. No longer familial and familiar, death has been industrialized by the funeral industry, commodified, and turned, like many human normacies in late-stage capitalism, into a debt-encumbering stress, both hidden and depersonalized. The words might change a little, but the McFuneral is always the same.
There are, of course, plenty of accompanying laws about what can and can’t be done with the deceased, and how and by whom, but what can’t be regulated is how we choose to remember our loved ones. Grief is an extremely important part of the human experience, and we’ve become very nebulous and lost in our ability to deal with it. We cower before death, we fear being forgotten, because we forget.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Build a personal altar in your home! Set aside the space and care for it. You don’t have to believe in spirits or the supernatural, do it for you and your family, and your ability to process death. You’ll find it much easier to let go of big things when you know you’ve taken care to preserve small things. For many, it’s a path to closure. For others, it’s a reminder to live today, since we’re never guaranteed tomorrow.
The important thing is to make it personal to you. Always respect the observances of other cultures, and never just blithely copy another culture’s aesthetics. If your ancestral or present culture doesn’t have a tradition in ancestral worship, start some new ones! Research folk traditions, and find common observances around the world! Things like candles, incense, food offerings, other offerings and placement of personal items is totally ubiquitous. What are some unique details you can come up with?
Finally, remember to talk about death! It doesn’t have to be unfamiliar and terrifying. In fact, there’s an entire good death movement gaining traction in the U.S. and around the world.
Honor your dead. Honor the living. Memento Mori.