Sunday, November 1, 2015

Day of the Dead

"The Dawn is Breaking"

Today local cemeteries around the region where I live will be the sight of numerous family picnics and community parties as people gather together to celebrate the annual “Day of the Dead”- “Dia de los Muertos.”

Today I will drive by many of the local cemeteries not far from our home and find large gatherings of families and extended families having a big fiesta at the tombs of their ancestors, deceased parents and grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends and neighbors who have died.  At the fiesta everyone will be laughing and feasting from plates laden with foods that were particularly enjoyed during the lifetime of those who have died. There will be plenty of music as a mariachi band plays, and of course there will be dancing – the living, dancing on the tombs of those who have gone before.

The first time I ever witnessed  a “Dia de los Muertos” fiesta I was a bit taken aback by it all. The entire event seemed somewhat macabre to someone like me who grew up back East in a rather “prim and proper” Anglo culture – perhaps even sacrilegious, eating at a tomb and dancing on a grave somehow seemed to desecrate the holy place.

 But I have since come to appreciate the “Day of the Dead” festivities as a wonderful and holy act, a great testimony to the belief that we need not be afraid of death and that, when we die we do not “stop being,” so we can indeed be in a “holy communion” with one another on both sides of the veil of life.

For many people (especially in Western-Anglo culture) “death” still remains one of those
“taboo” topics of conversation. When we learn that someone has died we express our sympathy and then move on to the next item of conversation as quickly as possible. I know lots of people who, although they have attended many memorial services, have never even been at a funeral at which a dead body was present – the body had long since been cremated and neatly placed out of sight.

Perhaps we are so “highly sanitized” and “death avoidant” because people just don’t want to face the fact that we are all going to die – somehow if you don’t have to look at death or talk about it you can push the idea out of your mind.

I remember a funeral I once conducted some years ago for a young college student who had been killed in a car accident. After the service, a young friend of the boy who had died came up to me sobbing: “I just realized that this is going to happen to me someday – I just never imagined that one day I will die.” I always remember what that student said to me and wonder if, regardless of their age, many people might say the same thing: “I never imagined that I will die one day.”

Buddhist monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, once wisely observed:

It’s not so much that people are afraid to die,
our greatest fear is that when we die we will become nothing.

I think this one little sentence probably captures the essence of why we are so “death avoidant.” We are afraid that we will become “nothing” when we die and yet while everything and everyone dies nothing ever stops being,

Again, Master Hanh observes:

Nothing that ‘is’ ever becomes nothing.

When I die I do not expect that I will float up through some heavenly gates to sit on clouds next to the angels; but I do believe that when I die I will somehow continue to be because nothing that is, ever becomes nothing. In fact I believe that when I die, life will be larger and I will be more alive than I am now.

A while back I read this beautiful essay about death in a Buddhist magazine:

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 been water all along.

Break out the food, let the music begin and put on your dancing shoes -  time to celebrate the “Day of the Dead.”

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