A More Respectful and Conscious Way to Celebrate El Día de los Muertos

Photo courtesy of history.com Belatina, latinx
Photo courtesy of history.com

Sólo muere lo que se ama.
Lo demás simplemente desaparece.

María Zambrano

“To grow older is to collect dead-loved ones,” a friend said to me some years ago, when we left the funeral of a co-worker’s husband. Terrible as that statement is, it is also true. As time passes, inevitably, people you love will pass away.

Just this morning, as I was researching for this piece, I read a passage of John Berger’s book Berger on Drawing. He described the intensity with which he drew his father for the last time after he died. It was his way to say good-bye to both his father and his father’s figure. It made me remember when I drew my grandmother in the hospital in what I thought would be her deathbed. 

Throughout Latin America, we have diverse and powerful rituals to deal with death. For example, in the Colombian Pacific, women sing alabaos for the grownups who passed away and gualíes for the children, and in that way, the community processes the loss. But for those of us who live in cities, we might have poorer resources to do it. 

Perhaps that is one reason why el Día de los Muertos is so intriguing it is an ancestral ritual used to related to death from a place of love, not fear or pain. And one of the difficulties we have in dealing with death is accepting that, as the Spanish philosopher María Zambrano puts it, only what we love is capable of dying. Everything else just fades away. 

If you are sincerely interested in celebrating Día de los Muertos, then maybe you should worry less about the traditional images used in Mexico and more about their reasons and meanings. If you want to have a “cool” decoration for your living room on Halloween, please do something else. That would be cultural appropriation and utter waste of time and materials. 

The Día de los Muertos has a history that goes back more than 3,000 years, and in its modern form is the result of the encounter between the Aztec culture and the Spaniards efforts to make Aztecs adopt Christian practices. 

During Día de los Muertos, on November 1st and 2nd, those who observe the practice build altars to their dead loved ones, including pictures, flowers, candles, and sometimes food and drinks. Others visit them on their graves to clean them up and listen to the music they loved the most.  

A way to start celebrating Día de los Muertos is to ask a friend or family member who already does. Whether he/she is Mexican or not, listen. Try to grasp what elements you can take to honor the loved ones you have lost; remember them at their best, and bring back the joy of the love they gave you. 

If you have pictures and want to build an altar with flowers, do it. You don’t need to use the traditional orange daisies. You could look for the ones this person liked the best and adorn the altar with elements of what brought you together: books, toys, jewelry, you name it. 

If you prefer, instead of building an altar, you could watch a movie your loved one liked, re-read a passage of a book, cook something, listen to a song. 

Whatever you choose to do, remember Día de los Muertos is sacred because of its history and religious context and the way it brings it closer to those you can no longer see or touch.