Living for the Dead: Dia de los Muertos and Kaddish

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with cultural traditions and superstitions about the dead: burial hordes, mummification, stones stacked on graves. Covering all the mirrors in a house after someone passes. Holding your breath when you drive past a cemetery. The ancient practice of placing coins over the eyes of the deceased. In my Singaporean preschool class, we celebrated the Chinese Qingming festival - where families leave out food for their ancestors and sweep tombs.

Desiree's Great Grandmother Emilia Camou Montaño

Desiree's Great Grandmother Emilia Camou Montaño

This class project was how my mother taught me about our own traditions, which weren't so dissimilar from my classmate's. I was not born Jewish - I'm coming to it by way of conversion. My mother's family is Mexican American and Catholic, and every early November we celebrate Dia de los Muertos - the Day of the Dead. And on the surface it feels wildly different from Jewish practices regarding death and mourning, but underneath the purpose isn't all that different. The fear and anxiety surrounding death is lessened through connection and community.

Memories can be a blessing - and a chance for celebration.

The Day of the Dead is something like a yahrzeit, where the deaths of loved ones are memorialized. But it feels different: Dia de los Muertos isn't somber or quiet. It's colorful, lively, and even humorous. While the holiday aligns with the Catholic church's feast of All Souls' Day on November 2nd, it originates in part from Native Mexican festivals surrounding the dead, and maintains much of its original non-Catholic flair. For a day, we can choose to mingle with the dead - picnicking in graveyards and spending time celebrating lives that have intersected our own.

Grand Canyon. Taken by Desiree Annis

Grand Canyon. Taken by Desiree Annis

Throughout my conversion process, I've found myself weighing these attitudes towards memorial and death. There is a time for mourning and processing tragedy.  There are moments when dealing with a death feels like ash in your mouth and weight on your shoulders. An introspective and mournful yarzeit allows for the deepest of our emotions to be run through in communal prayer. Saying Kaddish is a touchstone for dealing with loss - it's rhythmic and comforting.

But my family has taught me that in grief and mourning, there is also a space for laughter, stories, and joy. The Day of the Dead gives us the opportunity to physically create expressions of our emotions about death through art or action. We clean graves, decorate sugar skulls, leave behind vibrant marigolds, and talk about the lives of our loved ones. This is the epilogue to any cycle of grief - after the acceptance of death comes a reconciliation with life and dealing with the happiness we still remember.

I am trying my best to merge these two things - my Mexican American identity which celebrates people who are now gone, and my new, Jewish identity which provides a support system and the tools to process my own path of mourning. For me, they need to go hand in hand.

Balancing and merging my own attitudes and traditions surrounding death is complicated, but it provides me with an opportunity to reflect on the important questions.  When we are called to reexamine how we treat death, what do we learn? Are there alternatives to anxiety and fear in relation to dying? How do we treat the dead in the media, in life, in our own homes? Do we allow ourselves to embody memories and tell the stories of people now passed?

Now, more than ever, I feel compelled to introduce people to Dia de los Muertos like this, especially as the holiday becomes increasingly lumped in with Halloween. It's not that I ultimately object to people who aren't Latinx appreciating or even participating in the holiday. But I can't help but feel hurt when an important festival for dealing with death and loss is lumped in with dressing up as Spider-Man and a Disney princess. What could be a chance for other people to participate in our way of approaching death, and comforting ourselves with the existence of life and remembrance, has somehow become an excuse to sell Halloween masks and makeup.

I don't believe it has to be like this. The Day of the Dead's spirit - its purpose and tenor - can be respectfully incorporated by anyone - balanced with other beliefs. The dividing line between appropriation and appreciation is an invitation and respect. I encourage people to participate in and attend local cultural festivities open to the public. But even if there is no local event to experience, then Dia de los Muertos can still be meaningful. If you have never done so before, visit the graves of people you have lost. You may feel comfortable with leaving flowers or stones, or you may just dust off the grave marker. Share a good story about the people you want to remember: tell their favorite joke, sing a song they loved, make their favorite meal.

If a grave isn't something you can access, your family is estranged, or you feel compelled to still do more, there are so many other ways to connect. Ask if a more local graveyard needs volunteers for a day - someone to help sweep away dirt and leaves. Historical sites may need help transcribing tombstone inscriptions, or digitizing burial records and death certificates. All too often sudden tragedy strikes families unable to otherwise afford a funeral; even a small personal donation at the right time can make a world of difference.

This year in particular, I urge people to use the Day of the Dead to remember the 49 (mostly Latinx) LGBT people shot and killed at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Forty-nine lives, each and every one deserving to be cherished and celebrated - donated in honor of and remembered. When you see a sugar skull next, remember them. Do something for them - mi gente - my people.

And if you need to this November, stand for Kaddish - for the Day of the Dead - for the people we've lost and remembered.


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Desiree Annis is a transplant to the Philadelphia area, currently working as a research assistant in a museum. She is converting to Reform Judaism, and tweets about it @triberuth. Her two black cats like to sleep on top of her Jewish bookshelf, and also on top of any books she is currently reading - which isn't always helpful, but is always adorable.