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The Traditions of Death

This month I stood vigil at the death bed of my father’s wife, the woman who has been my stepmother since I was 6. The one who gave me gifts of homemade applesauce seasoned with cinnamon in mason jars and brought homemade loaves of the most delicious banana bread on our epic camping trips in the 70’s. Enough to feed a pack of 7 ratty-haired kids, the sum of our combined families. Death has been courting her for some time now, slowly inviting her to stay. In the month of June it proposed marriage and on the last day of that month she accepted. 

I’ve heard people use the word “failing” when describing the body’s ways of shutting down when death is near. Who came up with that description? It appears to forget that death is part of the miracle of existence, that our bodies know what to do and in their deep wisdom, accomplish it.  Death is like birth, it is a transition from one world, one state of consciousness, to another. We don’t call birth a failing. We have a better word for this and it’s called labor. It is work, it is painful, it can be longer or shorter and ultimately it delivers Being into the light of day. Or, in the case of death, out of the light of day. However, unlike birth, in death we are our own mothers, we deliver ourselves into what is beyond this sun. 

My stepmother‘s labor was slow, and in the final days deeply meditative, a profound silence and calm seemed to fill the room where she lay.  In those last days we were all able to gather around her; my father and the pack of ratty-haired kids whose faces remembered the sunburns of unfettered summer explorations long ago. Since then we have all made families, settled in one place or another, tidied our hair (or just plain lost it) and filled our lives with experiences unrelated to each other.  My life’s path took me to southern Mexico, to Oaxaca, where I spent 25 years of my life as a humble student in the classroom of old ways and wise tradition. 

For many Mexicans strong community is simply a birthright. This is most apparent in villages which are such tightly knit places. When death visits a village, the village visits death. Immediately the community responds, gathering around the family and offering support and ceremony. It is a thing that is orchestrated almost without a conductor, what has to be done is known.  In cities the tight-knit nature of a village is absent, but still, families tend to stay close and social networks still tend to be robust. Family is the community and the knowledge of how to gather and support around death is part of the living, cultural language. 

The living cultural language is expressed in ritual, food and solemn art.  One of the rituals I find the most powerful is creating time and space to say goodbye to the deceased. If the person dies at home, their body is laid in the altar room and for 24 hours visitors come to the house bringing candles and flowers and kneeling to offer the words that feel right to them. Through this time the room fills with the glow of candles, the beauty of flowers, and the many emotions contained in the love and memory each person brings with them. This I think of as a form of solemn art. A flowery, candle flamed sculpture painted with the incantations of so many caring voices. 

Food goes hand in hand with this and a self-organized team is busy making food for everyone who comes to visit. People sit around the comfort of food and company and talk of what they will, including the one who has gone. 

After 24 hours the body is taken away to be prepared for burial and all the flowers and candles and melted wax are carefully formed into a cross where the body had been. The solemn art continues to evolve.  And still people come to pay their respects, and still food is prepared and given and people sit together and talk. Then mass and burial with it’s own rituals. And the cross of flowers and candles are gathered and carried in baskets to the grave and placed there with the deceased, so that all the energy embodied in those objects may accompany the spirit of the deceased.

Our rituals around death are quiet and somber here in the US. And many of us are uncertain even of what those rituals are. Death, it seems, is like a family secret, a failing, something better not to talk about. This whole thing of death is uncomfortable. Best kept hidden.

And…that which is important in our lives is worth knowing about. That which is monumental is worth celebrating. That which is frightening is worth facing. That which is mysterious is worth understanding. That which hurts is worth exploring, caressing and eventually letting go of. And what in our lives is more important, mysterious, frightening, painful and monumental than death?

In my many years in Mexico it has been my fortune to be able to witness and participate in numerous ceremonies and rituals for dear ones just past and celebrations for ancestors generations gone. I paid attention and I learned and in the days before my step mother died I wondered what of Mexico’s traditional ways could support us in these moments. 

Community, ritual, food, and what I’d call solemn art, always seem to be present where ceremony of death exists in Mexico. Every October the most beautifully imaginable festival happens to remember and celebrate the dead, Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead. It is essentially a family-wide, village-wide, city-wide, nation-wide, history inclusive party where all the ancestors who have ever been are welcomed back with food, flowers, family and community.  House altars bloom into stunningly beautiful displays of solemn art. Graveyards fill with candles and flowers and all-night gatherings of communities who await the return of their deceased. There may be some debate as to whether the spirits of the departed return for this festival, but there is no question that their memory is more alive than ever during this celebration. In the remembering the loss is felt in the supportive circle of family. And hearts are soothed through gifts of generosity as altars and food are made, and food is shared with all who visit.

I can only possibly offer a sampling of the richness of the traditions that honor death here, but it is a worthy taste.  I spoke of some of this with my family, of flowers and candles and time to say goodbye. Of altars and memory and solemn art. And I prepared food for all of our little circle of once ratty-haired kids as we gathered to laugh and remember together and speak words of love and farewell to this lovely woman who was nearing her last breaths. And when she took her last breath two days later, those who were present cut flowers from the garden, gathered candles, sang, cried and said goodbye.  I was not there that night, but when I heard the news I lit a candle slowly, lovingly, thoughtfully, tearfully. And I went into the night and gathered flowers which I placed in a mason jar vase in front the candle. It was the most elegant of all possible vases, for it had come from her, once filled with applesauce.

I was thankful as could be to know what to do, to be able, in a small way, to have something to offer and to create a simple, very heartfelt altar.

And perhaps we will begin a tradition in our family, imported from wise old timers in another country, of creating an altar of food, flowers and candles for her, and for all our lineage of loved ones gone each October. In doing so we can work on facing what is difficult and remembering what is beautiful: those we love with our open healing hearts, and the preciousness of being alive in the light of day while remembering those who have gone into the mysterious shadows of some other state of consciousness in the perpetual cycles of the universe.