Celebrating the dead

Tom Canuel, Culture Editor

From October 31 to November 2 every year, the Mexican community celebrates the day of the dead. El Día de Los Muertos commemorates the memories of family members and welcomes back their souls for a reunion. Celebrations typically include food, drink, dance, and fun. 

El Día de Los Muertos has its roots in a 3000-year tradition that honored loved ones who passed away in the Americas. Upon dying, it was believed that a person traveled to Chicunamictlán, or the Land of the Dead. Chicunamictlán contained nine challenging levels that took several years to venture through to reach Mictlán, or the final resting place. Chicunamictlán would be the equivalent of what Catholics believe is purgatory in order to reach heaven. To assist their loved ones in the difficult journey, families would provide loved ones with food, water, and tools.

These traditions would later incorporate themselves into the feast days of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. These are both Catholic feast days that honor all the saints in heaven and pray for all the souls in purgatory. The traditions in Mesoamerica were also practiced in pre-colonial Spain, where loved ones would bring wine and pan de ánimas (spirit bread) to a gravesite on All Souls Day. Graves would be covered with flowers and candles to help their loved ones’ souls on their way back to their homes. Spanish conquistadors brought these traditions to the New World with them in the seventeenth century.

El Día de Los Muertos is typically celebrated with Ofrendas. An Ofrenda is an altar dedicated to all of one’s family members. Ofrendas are commonly embellished with candles, pictures of loved ones, and bright marigolds. Food, water, and wine are typically left on the altar so loved ones who have passed away can take them into the spiritual realm.

Often, El Día de Los Muertos festivities begin on November 1. At midnight on November 1, it is believed that the spirits of the children come down for 24 hours and are reunited with their families. This first day is called “Dia de los Angelitos.” At midnight on November 2, the celebrations shift to the souls of adults who have passed away. According to dayofthedead.holiday, “the night is filled with laughter and fun memories, much like the night before.” Ofrendas are more centered around adults and usually will have tequila on them. Villages will also put on concerts and dance the night away. At noon on November 2, the grand finale of Día de Los Muertos is celebrated. Many dress up with painted skeleton faces, host parades, and visit the gravesites of loved ones to place more food and drink. 

Although el Día de Los Muertos is typically celebrated in Mexico, Saint Anselm College has been encouraging diversity and learning about the holiday. This year, in the Multifaith prayer room, an Ofrenda has been built in honor of loved ones who have passed away from the Saint Anselm College community. Students and staff are encouraged to leave a picture of a loved one there. On Sunday, November 7, the college community will celebrate the Luminara Mass to pray for loved ones who have passed away. The Ofrenda will be put in the Abbey Church at that time so students can see who to pray for. For the Luminara Mass, students are encouraged to write names of deceased loved ones on white paper bags that will be lit up with candles. If students would like to create a bag, they are located directly outside the Office of Campus Ministry in the student center. Finally, the monastic community has been distributing cards across campus. They ask that students and staff pray for deceased members of the monastic community, especially Fr. Lawrence, O.S.B., and Fr. Peter, O.S.B., who passed away earlier this year. In turn, the monastery will pray for your loved ones. All are encouraged to write the names of loved ones on cards and give them to one of the monks so the community can pray for them. Students can feel free to drop them off in the Office of Campus Ministry or to any of the monks.