Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Dancing in a Graveyard

"Light in the Morning"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

 On these first few days of November, people from around the region where we live make their way to cemeteries throughout the community and participate in an annual “graveyard” party to celebrate “The Day of the Dead”- “Dia de los Muertos.”

Yesterday, as we drove past a local graveyard I observed a large gathering of families and extended families having a big “fiesta” at the tombs of their beloved, deceased relatives and friends. Gathered around the tombstones everyone was having a big party, laughing together and feasting on plates laden with foods for this special occasion.  And of course there was singing and there was dancing, lots of dancing.  As a mariachi band sang traditional tunes and played lively melodies, all the people were joyfully dancing on the graves of their dead relatives and friends.   

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, and insulting - eating at a tomb and dancing on a grave somehow seemed disrespectful, desecrating a holy place.

I have since come to appreciate these “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.

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.

I don't have a clue what life will be like after death; however when I die I do not expect that I will float up through some heavenly gates to sit on clouds next to angels. On the other hand, 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 that we all will be even more alive than we are 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.

Today as I think about all those graveyard parties going around in our local neighborhood, it strikes me that, in a sense, every single one of us is always dancing on the graves of the dead. We are “bubbles on the sea,” always in communion with the ocean from which we have sprung and someday we also will merge back into that sea and realize that we have never been apart. 

So let the dancing begin!


  1. Thanks for an interesting look at death. It reminds me of the New Orleans wake with dancing and music.

    1. Yes , very much like the New Orleans wake...thanks.