Thursday, November 2, 2017

Party in a Cemetery

"Life Goes On"
- Daybreak at the Desert Retreat House- 

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

Yesterday, as I drove past a local cemetery I observed that a large “festival” tent had been erected over the gravestones where families and extended families were gathered for a big “fiesta” at the tombs of their beloved ancestors – the “living” in communion with the dead.  I pulled into the cemetery to get a better look at what was going on, everyone was in a “party spirit,” feasting on plates laden with the favorite foods of the ancestors who had passed away. A mariachi band sang traditional tunes and played lively melodies and people were dancing on the graves of their dead relatives and friends.  

Until we moved out here to the desert, I was basically unfamiliar with the Dia De Los Muertos customs celebrated by the Latino community.  In fact, when I witnessed that party in a cemetery yesterday I was, at first, 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 it was even sacrilegious. Eating and drinking at a tomb and dancing on a grave somehow seemed disrespectful, desecrating a holy place.

As I continued to observe what was happening yesterday, it suddenly struck me that having a party in a cemetery in celebration of the “Day of the Dead” is actually 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. Perhaps we are so ““death avoidant” because we 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 observed:

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

I find great wisdom in this teaching. Many people are afraid that they will become “nothing” when they die and yet while everything and everyone dies nothing ever stops being.

When I die I do not expect that I will float up through some heavenly gates to sit on clouds next to angels or next to my dead relatives and friends; 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 – we all will be.

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 on in my 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 from which we came and realize that we have never been apart. 

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