Celebrating (with) Our Dead: Samhain & Dia de los Muertos

Grief & Holidays

Halloween was the first big holiday that Will and I (Joanne) had to face after our first son Finlay’s inexplicable death during childbirth in June 2014. Other people’s kids coming to our front door wearing costumes, smiling, laughing, and being so… well… alive seemed like the worst possible thing that we could endure at that time. So, we ran away from the approaching trick-or-treaters; actually, we flew away, leaving Illinois to visit a friend who had recently relocated from Scotland to Vermont.

A Day of the Dead Tree of Life by Francisco Flores on display at the National Museum of Mexican Art. February 2017. Photograph taken by Adam Jones. (flickr.com/photos/adam_jones/32597461730)

A Day of the Dead Tree of Life by Francisco Flores on display at the National Museum of Mexican Art. February 2017. Photograph taken by Adam Jones. (flickr.com/photos/adam_jones/32597461730)

Not ready to face those neighborhood kids and their confectionary demands the following year, we left home for Halloween 2015. This time we visited friends who live in Pilsen, an area of Chicago that many Mexican-American families call home and which houses the National Museum of Mexican Art. During our time there, festive skeletons and skulls adorned many shops and restaurants, and I was reminded of Dia de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”). I felt a pull toward this celebration of death that is commemorated widely across Mexico and increasingly in the United States and elsewhere. I thought about adapting some elements of this annual ritual as another way I could mark Finlay’s ongoing influence in our lives. It might also help me feel more connected to other grieving families around the world who would be doing the same for their children, grandchildren, etc.

At the end of October 2016, though, our second son Phalen was 2 months old. Having relocated to North Carolina just before Phalen was born, we were still adjusting to and struggling with the challenges of life with a newborn and the new waves of grief for Finlay that accompanied the birth of his brother. We didn’t have much energy to embrace a festive celebration, let alone one ideally manifested with lots of homemade creativity and care. All we managed to do was to dress Phalen in a hand-me-down Halloween onesie and take a couple of photos of him near some pumpkin candle holders. I made caramel corn and carved a pumpkin with Phalen’s and Finlay’s initials. Baby’s first Halloween: check.

Image from a vintage Halloween postcard (c. 1890-1920).

Image from a vintage Halloween postcard (c. 1890-1920).

This year as Halloween comes around again, I am struck by the commercialism and waste that has become associated with this holiday, at least as it is most commonly celebrated in this country. One need only think of the millions (billions?) of non-recyclable candy wrappers and disposable costumes likely produced with cheap materials thousands of miles away to understand how far we’ve come from harvest gatherings where folks carved pumpkins and bobbed for apples (both of which were likely locally-grown) and dressed in handmade costumes. Of course, lots of plastic and candy made with artificial colors and flavors needn’t epitomize this fanciful and nostalgic time of year. Many community-centered and environmentally-friendly ideas exist for having fun with Halloween.

Since Phalen is not yet eating candy and doesn’t yet grasp that a holiday is fast approaching, we have a great deal of freedom in determining how to celebrate this time of year. (A freedom, I hope, that we will continue to act upon in the coming years.) A friend has kindly invited us to her home to share time with other parents/kids. This get-together feels like a great way to extend our community and to give Phalen the opportunity to play with other kids while enjoying a meal, or breaking bread, together. This communal meal links to the roots of Halloween and other related celebrations. On the one hand, we can look to the history of the Catholic Church with its designation of All Hallow’s Eve and the Feast Days of All Saints (Nov 1) and All Souls (Nov 2). In the Medieval Ages, souling and soul-cakes played a role in remembering the dead.

An image from the Samhuinn Fire Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland.

An image from the Samhuinn Fire Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Celtic New Year & the Dead

On the other hand, we have the pagan precursor to Halloween, which interests me more. With its ancient Celtic origins honoring the imminent “dark half” of the year, Samhain (“summer end” pronounced “sow-in) festivities marked the Celtic New Year. Glennie Kindred writes, “Samhain is a celebration of all that has finished and ended, the seasonal end of the old year. We are called upon to let our old selves die so that we can expand and grow into new parts of ourselves” (Letting in the Wild Edges, 87). (We might interpret Kindred's idea as a mode of inviting abundance into our lives.) This is a time, after all, when it is believed that the veil between the living and the dead – between this world and the Otherworld – is thinnest. The proximity of life and death – while always two sides of the same coin – are somehow more apparent and tangible during this transitional period. And on Samhain eve, many Celts prepared dinner for their ancestors and used the skulls of ancestors to protect them from demons. Fire acted as a main element of these celebrations and still does. When I was living in Edinburgh as a graduate student, I saw how contemporary Scots embrace fire during Samhuinn (the Scots Gaelic version of Samhain) with bonfires and fire jugglers.

Celebrating Family Past & Present

Leaving the fiery Celts aside for a moment, I return to the celebrations that have become Day of the Dead in the lands that we call Mexico. Olmec, followed by the Mayan and Aztec peoples, held rituals honoring their dead. As author Judy King writes, “When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico [in the early 16th century] they encountered two-month celebrations honoring death, the fall harvest and the new year. For more than 500 years, the goddess Mictecacihuatl (Lady of the Dead) presided over Aztec harvest rituals using fires and incense, costumes of animal skins, images of their dead and offerings of ceramics, personal goods, flowers and foods, drink and flowers” (mexconnect.com/articles).

Altars can be simply decorated or can be incredibly elaborate multi-tiered structures.

Altars can be simply decorated or can be incredibly elaborate multi-tiered structures.

Dia de los Muertos rituals have changed over the centuries, combining pagan and Catholic ideas and practices. However, primary elements such as families gathering in private at home and publicly – often in cemeteries – to offer ancestors food and drink and celebrating and remembering the dead with stories and music remain. Families construct ofrenda (“offering”), ritual altars that hold special objects, food, flowers, candles, incense, photographs, etc. for the dead. Judy King details the collection of items, noting that the primary elements on ofrenda are water (to quench the thirst and for purification), salt (to season the food and for purification) and bread (food needed for survival) (ibid.). Many people bake a version of pan de muerto (“bread of the dead”), a sweet bread often decorated with icing or additional bits of dough in the shape of tears and/or bones.

Here is an ofrenda from Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico. For the flowers, Tagetes erecta (African or Aztec marigold) is most commonly used. It has a long history of varied medicinal uses.

Here is an ofrenda from Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico. For the flowers, Tagetes erecta (African or Aztec marigold) is most commonly used. It has a long history of varied medicinal uses.

The Day of the Dead is actually a two-day celebration, starting at midnight on October 31. November 1 honors deceased infants and children. It is believed that on Dia de los Angelitos (“Day of the little Angels”), the souls of departed children return to their families, and so families prepare for their arrival with offerings of toys and sweets. The following day, adult ancestors return, and alcohol (often tequila or mezcal) may be left for them in addition to their favorite foods. Altars may hold incense (often copal resin) and flowers, most commonly marigolds. Their color and scent help to guide the dead to their family homes and cemeteries.

Adapting Traditions for Continued Healing

This year, we will be bringing some of the ancient traditions of Samhain and Dia de los Muertos into our home to honor Finlay and other deceased loved ones. From Samhain, we will borrow the element of fire. Will and I will write on small pieces of paper something that we longer wish to carry on the next leg of our grief journey, and then we will set them aflame. From Dia de los Muertos, we will borrow the practice of making an ofrenda for Finlay, complete with incense, flowers, treasured objects, pan de muerto, and other treats. This time of year feels especially appropriate to adapt these rituals to mark our sweet son's life and death as we transition out of October (National Pregnancy & Infant Loss Awareness Month) and move into the holiday season.

This year and in the coming years, celebrating Halloween – for/with Phalen – and Samhain & Dia de los Angelitos – for/with Finlay – will allow us to parent both of our sons and to honor the gifts that they give to us throughout the year.

A Day of the Dead procession.

A Day of the Dead procession.

I encourage other grieving individuals and families to consider adapting something from these ancient celebrations – where death was/is revered and our relationship to the dead made visible – into your homes or communities. Maybe you like the idea of baking bread or a special treat for your child. Or perhaps the idea of bringing colorful flowers or lighting sweet-smelling incense on this day warms your heart. Or planning an event that involves fire may speak to you. Whatever you do, I hope you find a moment of connection, reflection, and possibly enjoyment that will help you take the next step on your grieving and healing journey.

**Please share in the Comments Section below your ideas for celebrating — or rituals you already practice to celebrate — (with) your beloved dead!**

Related Blog Posts: Written by Joanne: Creative Grief Work and Holding Space & Sitting with Grief; Written by Will: Death Literacy/Death Faire, Practicing Hope and Dead Reckoning