Dia de los Muertos, celebrating those we carry, & remembering to always eat the bread

“Can we, um, eat it?” Sean cautiously slips the spatula under a slice of the pan de muerto, which, only minutes before, sat, round loaf intact, on our makeshift altar in the newly emptied shed behind us.

I realize I don’t quite know how this is supposed to work: I’d read the dead are believed to consume the scents and “essence” of their favorite foods, meaning those around the table could consume the real thing. Michelle had brought Mexican Cokes, a favorite of her dad’s. I contributed a sweet potato casserole and a blinged out salad meant to satisfy the gods, or, more to the point, my mom, whose loyalty to the salad menu was unwavering. But I’d also read that bread of the dead—this one covered in a thin layer of pink sugar crystals and shaped to look like cross-bones—was intended as a sweet treat as the spirits begin their journey. Was it also up for grabs, or did removing it from the altar somehow violate its sanctity? And then I remembered: Dia de los Muertos (without the “los,” if you’d prefer to be precise) is all about fun, celebration, color, vibrancy, and above all, life. Of course we eat the bread.  

I’d never heard of Dia de los Muertos before I arrived in California. Sure, I’d heard mention of “Day of the Dead,” and I’d seen pictures of faces painted in black and white, artfully made to resemble skulls. But until then, “altars” were things I’d spied in living room corners in the homes of hippie friends and Buddhist friends alike. The only occasion I’d had to semi-publicly honor a loved one was a funeral. The day after Halloween was the day after Halloween. 

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the holiday at first. This was the very opposite of somber or morose: Altars bedecked in marigolds, skeletons playing guitar and skeletons in tuxes and wedding gowns, hot pinks and bright yellows mixing in with dark purples and black death (I didn't need a tutorial to understand the symbolism there.) Even today, the idea that remembering those who've died can be a culturally sanctioned affair—let alone one that is child-friendly, exuberant, and celebratory—strikes me, quite literally, as other-worldly. 

But it turns out, we’re the weird ones. In Japan, there’s the 500-year-old Bon Festival, which includes a lantern-lighting ceremony known as Tōrō Nagashi, and the Bon Odori, a dance which, in some regions, can last all night. In China, there’s the Hungry Ghost Festival, in which the gates of heaven and hell are believed to open up, allowing ghosts to wander freely for one month. The month-long celebration includes joss paper-burning and elaborate meals meant to appease the ghosts (note: there, too, you’re allowed to eat the food, but only after a 30-minute wait so that the ghosts can have their fill.) Madagascar’s Malagasy participate in famadihana (“Turning the Bones”,) a festival that takes place every seven years, in which living family members open the tombs of the deceased and rewrap the body in scarves, celebrating with music and dance as they do so. Hindus have Pitr Paksha, a 16-day celebration meaning “fortnight of the ancestors,” best known for its food offerings placed on banana leaves.  

A few weeks ago, The Book of Life hit movie theaters. Voiced by actors Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, and Channing Tatum, the animated children's movie tells the story of Manolo, a young suitor who must explore The Land of the Remembered and brave The Land of the Forgotten, all in a quest to win the love of his life.  In an interview on NPR, director Jorge Gutiérrez shared the inspiration for the story, which began when he lost his best friend at the age of nine. "My parents set me down, and said, 'Your friend, Mauricio, he is with you as long as you talk about him and you tell his jokes and you remember him and you keep his memory alive by talking about him."

For much of the world, remembering the dead and celebrating the lives and legacies of those we've lost is the stuff of street festivals and dance parties. Now it's the stuff of children's movies. We think that's as good a signal as any that one day, we'll know to eat the bread. 

Posted on November 3, 2014 and filed under Rituals.