We will soon be celebrating the great day of remembering all the known and unknown Saints (November 1). The day following, we pray for our deceased loved ones and remember our sadness at their absence. November 2 has been designated the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed or All Souls’ Day.
The indigenous Aztecs in what is now the nation of Mexico had a developed and complex theology of death and the after-life This had an influence on the newly-arrived practice of Catholicism in Mexico. The result is the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos). Observed around October 31-November 2, it is a rich celebration of the practice of praying for the dead and remembering and celebrating those who have gone before.
There has been a sharp increase in attention to this cultural/religious celebration due to the release of the visually-stunning movie Coco, the story of a 12-year-old boy named Miguel who is accidentally transported to the Land of the Dead.
The centerpiece of our Catholic All Souls celebration is, of course, always the Eucharist. In Mass and communion, we partake of the banquet which will be ours for all eternity.
An important part of remembering our departed is a visit to the cemetery, especially to the graves of loved ones who have gone home to the Lord.
There is also a growing popularity and adaptation of the Mexican custom (demonstrated in the movie) of the ofrenda: a table or offering in the home, business or other gathering place (such as our parish Community Center). Ofrendas are very personal to a family and can also be very public proclamations of their love for their deceased family members.
An ofrenda may be one or more levels in height, draped in cloths and, of course, supporting religious symbols which remind us of our faith in Christ, his saints and the life to come. Common colors are white for hope and purple for sadness. There are flowers, most especially the marigold, which is, in itself, a symbol of the Day of the Dead.
The ofrenda supports photos of those who have died. They are the ones who are being remembered. Each is honored with samples of his/her favorite food, placed near the photo. There is also water (a wonderful baptismal symbol) and other unique Mexican creations such as a sweet bread, ceramic depictions of death, colored papers and other memorabilia.
The Day of the Faithful Departed is a wonderful opportunity for us to express our Christian faith in life after death, our Catholic belief in the efficacy of praying for the dead and something of our North American culture in creating a space to honor our loved ones who have passed.