Monday, November 2, 2009

Day of the Dead

Sunnyside Cemetery on Thanksgiving Day 2007
Caney, Kansas

In Barbara Kingsolver's sad but magical novel Animal Dreams, the narrator, Codi Noline, joins the people of Grace, Arizona, for "the town's biggest holiday, the Day of All Souls." They walk together to the cemetery to weed and tend the family graves, decorate with marigolds, and enjoy the traditional skull-shaped candies with the children:

"It was the bittersweet Mexican holiday, the Day of the Dead, democratic follow-up to the Catholic celebration of All Hallows. Some people had business with the saints on November 1, and so went to mass, but on November 2, everybody had business at the graveyard." (158 - 59)

Whenever November 2nd and May 30th roll around, I always wish I lived nearer to the cemeteries where most of my loved ones and ancestors are buried so that I too could pay a visit and decorate the graves in the time - honored fashion. When I was growing up, months and months might pass between visits to our grandparents, but we never missed Thanksgiving or Memorial Day weekend.

No matter what the weather, on Memorial Day we spent a good part of the day at the cemetery, attending various ceremonies and speeches in honor of the Veterans and the War Dead; placing wreathes and potted plants; sometimes even planting flowers that would bloom throughout the summer. Nobody really says "Decoration Day" anymore, but that's what I remember calling it when I was small -- because we decorated! If I was lucky enough to spend a week or two of summer vacation with my grandparents, we spent the evenings one of two ways -- sitting on the porch or taking a walk to Sunnyside Cemetery. Those were happy times for me, tagging along, picking stray flowers, and listening to the old stories about those at rest there.

At Thanksgiving, when the cemetery was bare and empty -- no parades, podiums or bands; very few visitors, very few flowers -- even then we didn't miss the opportunity to wander from grave to grave, paying our respects. I guess that was our Midwestern way of observing All Souls -- just three or four weeks late.

These days, I live only a few blocks from the nearest local cemetery and can spend a reflective hour there anytime, thinking of the old days, reading the names of strangers, but it's not quite the same. As Codi says:

"More than anything else I wished I belonged to one of these living, celebrated families, lush as plants, with bones in the ground for roots. I wanted pollen on my cheeks and one of those calcium ancestors to decorate as my own." (165)


And this from Ray Bradbury's The Halloween Tree: "It's both happy and sad. It's all firecrackers and skeleton toys down here in the plaza and up in that graveyard now are all the Mexican dead folks with the families visiting and flowers and candles and singing and candy. I mean it's almost like Thanksgiving, huh? And everyone set down to dinner, but only half the people able to eat, but that's no mind, they're THERE. It's like holding hands at a séance with your friends, but some of the friends gone."
(118 - 19)


  1. When my grandmother was still alive we took care of the graves and visited. But now I never go to the graveyard where all my relatives are buried. It's too sad and I still miss my dad so much sometimes that I just can't bring myself to visit. Strange as that sounds it would just make him more dead.

  2. Dear Cate, None forbidden; none compelled: that's what I say. The point of tradition is to make meaning, so you need participate only in the rituals which hold the most meaning for you and increase (not decrease!)your sense of connectedness. xo, K.