Updated: Dec 12, 2022
By Brenda Riojas, I Start Wondering Columnist
“So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.” -Psalm 90:1-
My nephew who stayed with us for a time was perplexed one late October when I brought out my collection of Calaveras and catrinas (skulls painted in bright colors and skeleton figures). I explained they were for my Dia de Los Muertos (All Souls Day) altar I prepare each year with photos of loved ones who have died. I started making an altar after my mother died, and over the years it grew to include other loved ones.
Creating an altar to remember the dead and honor their memory can help in the healing process of dealing with loss, recognizing that we are born of the earth and return to it. However, I can understand how a skull and skeleton sitting on a table might shock someone, thinking of these items as morbid. To some, they are frightening symbols of death, the end of life, the finality of it all.
But I now leave some of the Calaveras and catrinas out year-round. I have grown to appreciate them as a symbol of life. They are my “memento mori.”
Remember Your Death
Memento Mori, the Latin phrase “remember your death,” serves as a helpful cue to take stock of our lives. How are we living each day? How are we treating others? Are we living life to the fullest? What will be our legacy? Owning the reality that indeed our days are numbered should prompt us to be more alert, and embrace every moment.
Some saints kept a skull on their desks to remind them to be vigilant of how they lived their lives. St. Benedict, the founder of western monasticism, advised his monks to “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die. Hour by hour keep watch over all you do.” (Rule of St. Benedict 4:47, 48)
Death is a topic we should not run away from. It is a universal reality. Why not engage in a dialogue with family and friends to consider how this eventuality impacts your everyday life? How is death present in your life? What remains unfinished? Are there relationships in need of mending, reparations you are avoiding, or someone who you want to talk to? Naturally, we also need to consider the practical aspects of wills, estate planning, and our last party.
Unfortunately, my husband and I have attended many funerals over the years. However, we have learned from these experiences, how beautiful they can be in that they provide opportunities to say goodbye and to gather with family and friends not only to mourn but also to share memories. The details do matter. My husband and I have already selected music we would like to play at our own funerals when the time comes.
Dia de Los Muertos
All Souls Day, observed each year on Nov. 2, is a time in the Catholic Church to pray for the dead. It also is a time to celebrate life. Actually, the entire month of November is designated for remembering the dead.
In Mexico, and now in different areas of the United States, the Nov. 2 feast day blends in elements of the Mexican culture along with traditions that date back to the Mayans and the Aztecs, who saw death as an awakening and a rebirth in the next life.
Father Jorge Gomez, rector at the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle, in San Juan, Texas, notes, "For God no one is dead, everyone is alive, and we celebrate their lives.… It is a way to commemorate and remember people we love... As long as we remember, they're still alive in our hearts and minds."
He points out, "It's a cultural way of looking at death. ... 'La Muerte no triunfa.' We celebrate life, not death. We are not afraid of death because death does not have the final word in this life."
As another priest friend shared before his own passing, the vivid oranges, greens, purples, yellows, and reds used in elaborate Day of the Dead preparations manifest joy because there is no sadness, no mourning, and no use of black. “There is simply joy and happiness because their souls are already in God's hands,” he said.
"Es una fiesta no para llorar, sino para gozar," he said. ("It is not a feast for crying, it is one to enjoy.")
In fact, there are a number of faith traditions that have observances for those who have passed. Neda Ramirez of the Baha'i Faith shared that they pray for the progress of the person's soul when someone dies. “Baha'i's believe that when someone passes, the soul goes to the spiritual world where it travels until it attains the presence of God, the Messengers, saints, and holy ones,” she explained. “Therefore, it helps our loved ones if we pray for their soul to progress.”
We all have different stories, stages we are navigating, and losses we are grieving. Life is a balance of joys and sorrows. Let’s remember the dead, recall our memento mori and celebrate and honor the time we are given on earth. Celebrate the people in our lives, the gift of each moment together.
I leave you with a song that speaks to living life to the full, “Vivir Mi Vida” https://youtu.be/YXnjy5YlDwk by Marc Anthony.