Yesterday, I have witnessed my first Dia de los Meurtos celebration – a Mexican tradition of celebrating the passed ones and smiling at death. Coming from two very Catholic countries – Croatia and Austria, I am used to give honor to the ones that passed away once a year, on 1 November, All Saints Day. On that day, Croats (Austrians to a much lesser extent) visit graveyards, and fill them with big quiet crowds overwhelmed with respect and sadness. They buy flowers – white, stern flowers, a certain kind that is connected to cemeteries - and candles and turn cemeteries into lakes of warm quiet candlelight. In our culture, death is bad, it’s scary, it’s the end, it’s dark. We have completely estranged ourselves from death. Especially in big cities, our elderly now die in hospitals, are cremated or buried in closed coffins. While my grandparents laid in their coffins for days in our family house on a Croatian island, waiting for people to come pay respect and say goodbye, no one saw the corpses of the relatives who died more recently. As a society, we are becoming better in seeing only what we like to see and sweeping everything unpleasant or scary under the carpet. We celebrate youth, wealth, life, sex. But the shadow is always present, and if we simply turn our heads in the other direction pretending not to see it, it will make sure to show its face in a different, often more treacherous way. I’m thinking of mass shootings - but that’s a whole other story waiting to be written. And then there is (mostly Anglo-Saxon) Halloween on 31 October, the night when spirits, zombies, witches and monsters come out. And while All Saints Day pays fearful quiet respect to death, Halloween openly and joyfully deals with its dark side. To the extent that Halloween has turned (apart from one big orgy where once a year, women believe it’s ok to turn themselves into sex objects) into tasteless pornography of gruesomeness. Some Halloween stores are so scary, filled with demonic zombie babies eating their own guts, that I leave heavily traumatized.
And then there is Dia de los Muertos. And oh, how different it is! It celebrates the dead ones and the death with joy. People paint their faces into skulls – but cheerful skulls adorned with colorful flowers. They wear elaborate and joyful clothes. They go to the cemetery and have a party - with music and food and dancing. They build extravagant colorful fun altars honoring their dead, serve them their favorite dishes and give them presents. They tell jokes and fun anecdotes about their dead. As someone yesterday said, they “laugh at death”. But I am not sure if that is right. Laughing at something can be disrespectful. What they do is face death with respect and turn it into something positive, removing the fear of darkness. At least once a year.
I’m already excited about my next Dia de los Muertos.