I had yet to recover from the night-long Halloween hangover when Isaac Garrido, a Mexican intern, came rushing to me in the office and said, “Hey, it’s the day to celebrate the dead in my country. Texas and California, with high Hispanic population, are also celebrating the day in the United States.”
Celebrating? Do we ‘celebrate’ death or ‘mourn’ it? As I considered that Isaac had got the wrong word, he excitedly asked, “Don’t you celebrate the dead in your country?”
He went on and on, talking about his childhood when the lady in the neighbourhood would celebrate her husband’s death.
“What a terrific time we had every year! She would decorate her house, create an altar where she kept her husband’s photo and personal belongings, even his beer and cigarettes. And also cook his favourite food. Even the path to the altar from the door used to be strewn with petals to guide the returning soul. Yes, we believe souls return to us on these two days.”
They celebrated the dead twice a year — November 1 and 2. Day one to remember the Little Angels, day two to welcome the old back into their homes. That also explained to me the window stores lined up with papier mache skeletons and candy skulls. My curiosity grew. I questioned more immigrants from Mexico. They all had interesting tales — how the burial spot was converted into a place for reunion with the souls of their kin. “We go to their graves, decorate it with flowers and set the mood for a picnic.” Every care is taken to do things that the close kin did in his or her lifetime — smoking, drinking, listening to music, whatever.
Can we ever imagine ‘celebrating’ the dead to this extent? Of course, we have rituals where we offer water to departed souls and we do observe death anniversaries in our own ways. Yet, we don’t really ‘celebrate’ it. To Mexicans, the day of death reminds them of the continuity of life. We can learn from them how to honour the dead by remembering them and not our own pain on losing them.