Sunday, November 2, 2014

Party with the Dead

"Waking Up"
- Sunday Morning at the Desert Retreat House -

Since we live so close to the Mexican border, there are some big festivities going on around here this weekend as people all around us gather together to celebrate "Dia de los Muertos," "The "Day of the Dead."

You can drive by almost any of the local cemeteries and find large gatherings of families and extended families having a big fiesta at the tombs of their deceased loved ones - colorful tablecloths spread out before the tombstones of a grandmother, a dad, a spouse or a baby who died at birth, everyone laughing, eating from plates laden with the foods that departed loved ones had especially enjoyed during their lifetimes. And yes, there is plenty of music as mariachi bands play familiar folk tunes and family members dance upon the graves of their dearly departed. 

Many years ago I thought it rather odd to throw a party with the dead; it all seemed sort of macabre to someone like me who grew up in a rather "prim and proper" Anglo culture.  But I have now come to think of this "Day of the Dead" fiesta as a wonderful and tender way to embrace death from a deeply spiritual perspective. 

"Death" is one of those taboo topics for many contemporary people in popular culture nowadays -  no one wants to think about death, let alone talk about it. I know plenty of people who, although they have attended many funerals and memorial services, have never actually seen a dead body. By the time of the funeral, the dead body has already been cremated and comfortably tucked away, neatly placed out of sight. 

I remember a few years back when, responding to the recent death of his friend, a young college student came to me with this astonishing realization: "My friend's death has made me realize that I will also die someday. Somehow I never actually thought that was going to happen to me."  Amazingly enough, my guess is that in our "death-avoidant" popular culture many people push the idea of death so far inside as to convince themselves that death isn't something that is going to happen to them.  But obviously everyone is going to die; and that's why it is so important to talk about death, even to embrace it with fiestas and food, music and dancing.

Thich Nhat Hanh once so wisely said:

Our greatest fear is that when we die we will become nothing

Maybe that's why so many of the living don't want to talk about dying- they are afraid they will become nothing when they die. And while I personally don't believe that when I die I will be floating on heavenly clouds, sipping lemonade with all my deceased friends and relatives, I know for a fact that although everything dies, nothing ever stops being.

Nothing that "is" ever becomes nothing. 

The way I see it, all of us spring up out of the river of life, and after a brief time, we return to the river from which we came.  I once read a Buddhist essay that put it this way:

Each of us is like a bubble on the sea,
when the bubble bursts and merges with the sea
it realizes that it has never been apart - it has always been water all along.

As I think about those families having grand fiestas in cemeteries this weekend - all those living people dancing on the graves of their dead, I realize that every single one of us is always dancing on the graves of the dead. We are all "bubbles on the sea," always "at-one-with" all who have gone before, and someday all of us also merging back into the sea and realizing we have never been apart. 

"Dia de los Muertos - Let's have a party! 

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