Ofelia Esparza, an “altarista” featured on an intercultural video series, “Craft in America: Border Episode” says each of us dies three times: once when we die physically, once when we are buried and will never be seen on the face of the earth again, and once when we are forgotten. It is that third death that is the hardest and is the primary reason behind the Day of the Dead ceremonies.
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Of course, as a child, I wasn't thinking about any of those deaths when I decided that I didn’t “like” death. I was one of the fortunate ones, however. Death barely whispered to me until I reached my 60s, and then it began to roar.
|Richard and Ava in the poppy fields|
My husband, a kind, sweet, funny man was my first major loss that came after three years of dealing with cancer. I remember asking him as we neared the end if he feared death. He said, “No,” but added that there was one thing he did fear … being forgotten. Those words broke my heart because there was nothing in our lives that would make him believe that we wouldn’t forget him. We had no rituals of remembering those who had gone before us.
Perhaps that was the first significant shift in my acceptance of death as a part of life. The losses multiplied quickly after Richard died as I quickly lost all of my elders and began to lose friends and colleagues.
Day of the Dead as a celebration of Life
In the "Craft in America" episode linked above, Ofelia Esparza states, “For Day of the Dead, we don’t celebrate death; we celebrate life. We invite the souls to come visit us.”
Everything that is done during the celebration is done as a way to help the departed souls find their way back to their loved ones and to feel honored and cared for. As we, the living, are preparing their favorite foods, creating an altar in their honor, and cleaning and decorating their graves, we are remembering them, softening that third death that will come to each of us eventually.
As my resistance to death began to soften, I created my own “death day.” We know when our birth day is but most of us never know when our death day will be. So I decided on June 17th as my death day. The intention was to use that day as a reminder that I will die, but, until then I should live fully. This past year as I grow ever nearer to the close of this earth adventure, I decided that the 17th of every month would be honored as a death day, reminding myself to do everything I want to do while I’m still healthy and alive … and, also, to get my affairs in order so that there is a minimum of mess for others to take care of when I leave.
Moving to Mexico was a major decision related to that commitment to live fully and lightly for the rest of my time. I had always wanted to live in a different culture and learn a second language. It was time to make that happen.
So, here I am living by a beautiful lake in a charming village in Mexico. I am healthy, energetic, delighted by the art I’m making and the interesting people I’m meeting. In the 1980s, it was common to hear people say, “This would be a good day to die.” Widely attributed to Crazy Horse, apparently it is more correctly attributed to Oglala Lakota chief Low Dog.
Whomever deserves the credit, I have reached a place where I can honestly say, “This would be a good day to die,” which actually means I am free to live and would have no regrets if this were my last day (although I hope I get to see many more.) And, being here in Mexico has brought me closer to an appreciation for the rituals of death and honoring those who have gone before us … which actually helps us savor life more fully.
Later this month, I will be creating an altar for the Day of the Dead and will write about the common altar elements in the next episode of this series.
Previous Day of the Dead Episodes: