11/4/2013 9:27:00 AM Celebrating Death: A Hispanic Tradition
Catholic News Service photos
A woman stands near the grave of a relative at San Gregorio Cemetery in Mexico City. Mexicans celebrate the "Day of the Dead" to pay tribute to their dead relatives, preparing meals and decorating the graves as an offering. This tradition is based on pre-Hispanic culture, but after the Spanish conquest the date was changed to coincide with Catholic feasts honoring the dead.
A man and girl place candles in sand to form a cross in 2008 at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Tulsa, Okla., during a "Dia de las Muertos" celebration at the predominantly Hispanic parish.
Ancestors' practices continued
In Latin America, popular religiosity is deeply intertwined with Catholic rites. In Mexico, for example, traditions for the Day of the Dead in November, pilgrimages to Our Lady of Guadalupe in December, and the rites related to the death of a loved one reflect this blending.
The current custom is to begin a novenario, a nine-day praying cycle, after the burial. During this cycle, someone leads the family and friends of the deceased in praying the rosary and the litany of the dead. Many families make a cross of wood and on it write the name and years of the deceased. They stand this cross on a table or altar and surround it with candles when praying the rosary.
On the ninth day, they take the cross to the cemetery and put it on the tomb. The novenario usually ends with a Mass. During these gatherings, people eat and share stories about the deceased. Family and friends are able to confront the pain of their loss and receive comfort as they begin to heal.
Life and death are celebrated, and customs inherited from indigenous ancestors are still practiced.
— Vicky Demezas
MEXICO CITY — For the Hispanic people, death is a cause for celebration. The ancestors of most of us who are Hispanic, especially of those of us who are Mexican, viewed death as an important event. Death wasn’t just about the heart stopping, about the breath ceasing; it was about beginning a new journey. The rituals used today to acknowledge this event are a combination of indigenous traditions and Catholic doctrine, an intermixing greatly responsible for the Hispanic identity.
Most of us, both now and then, tend to die lying down. While we do so while in our beds, our ancestors were usually on mats. Customs of the time called for family members to wrap the deceased in the mat prior to cremation. The individual’s ashes were then put in a hut for nine days, at which point the deceased was ready to pass into the next life. Our ancestors were convinced that, on the ninth day, there was more air between the heavens and the earth. The air stretched out the distance between the two, making the passing from earth to the afterlife easier.
On the days between the cremation and the passing into the afterlife, family members would gather around the ashes to eat, drink, talk, and pray. They were sure the deceased was still living among them while beginning the journey to be reunited with God. The ashes were buried on the ninth day in the midst of a celebration full of dancing and music.
Many of these traditions have been passed along, though some have changed. The current custom isn’t to leave the ashes in a hut, for example. Now, a cross is made with lime or dirt. It symbolizes the intersection of God’s path and our path. Formerly, God was seen as being the great god of the sun who traveled from east to west; we were on a perpendicular path and traveled from north to south. The intersection was seen as the point of death. This ancient interpretation of death is wise. Although there is a great sadness associated with death, we are also encouraged to see the joyous occasion it truly is and to celebrate it accordingly. According to these traditions, the deceased don’t simply end, don’t simply become nothing more than bodies in a cemetery; they keep walking to the other life. Death is the beginning of the afterlife.
This view of death, of what follows the end of our earthly experience, is what feeds the traditions that continue. Family and friends gather around the cross they draw for nine days, in keeping with the earlier custom. They pray the rosary, drink coffee, and eat tamales. On the ninth day, they perform the ceremony known as levantacruz, literally “lifting the cross,” in this case the one belonging to the deceased person. The ceremony completes the rite of gathering God’s steps and those of the person.
According to the ancient belief, the moment the two paths meet is when the individual truly dies and God and the deceased find each other. Once this has happened, the ashes are buried next to the body, which was buried on the first of the nine days.
Family members visit the buried periodically, just as their ancestors used to do. In keeping with ancient tradition, they leave flowers, especially zempasuchil, known in English as yellow marigolds. They are preferred because, given their color, they symbolize the sun god the best. In the ancient tradition, the sun god gave life not only to nature and those living, but also to the deceased. The flowers served as a physical representation of the god who gives life, even after we have left earth. Many who continue with this custom today may not know precisely why they do so, but the tradition still lies in the associations of our ancestors.
Nov. 1 and 2 are important festive days in the Hispanic calendar. It is then that the deceased, children and adults alike, return to visit their families, who greet them with tables full of the food and drinks they loved while on earth. These tables, overflowing with tamales, mole, tortillas, pulque, aguardiente, and other traditional Hispanic food, are referred to as “altars for the dead.” Photographs of the deceased are frequently placed on these tables. Some people prefer to take this food to the cemetery and place it on the tomb of their loved ones as an offering. There they pray the rosary and invite friends over to consume the food. These are important days for communion between the living and the deceased.
It’s interesting to note how our ancestors, without having known the Gospel, somehow intuited so many of the things Jesus would say about death and the afterlife. They understood that death meant being reunited with God, something Jesus tells us clearly. He compared it to a banquet, something they partook in and that we still include in our celebrations. A banquet integrates so many things. It is an experience of joy, of satisfaction, of being reunited, of communication, of communion with many, of leaving worries behind and relaxing, and of abundance. It is an event that deserves to be celebrated. In the Hispanic culture, muerte (death) and muerto (deceased) are terms close to the people’s hearts.
The writer is a professor at the Universidad Pontificia of Mexico and the Center of High Religious Studies.