As I strike a match and lean in to light a candle, I notice my daughter’s tiny hands appear beneath me holding a piece of Pan de Muerto. I step back to give her room and she places it directly in front of the candle on an altar already beautifully strewn with rich foods and delectable treats, swimming in a sea of softly shining marigolds and skulls of sugar, beneath the photographs of those we welcome home this night and have been courting to come visit us every evening since Samhain Eve. This is the culmination of our time spent with them. Tonight may be their last evening to walk amongst us for another year, so tonight, we see them off in style. Tonight is their night. I tell my little one “ Tonight, baby. We dance with the dead.”. This doesn't frighten her at all. There are a lot of celebrations throughout the year. Some we make it to, some we don't. But we never miss this one.
I hear the drums. We have to hurry or we’re going to miss the procession. We rush to the steps of the church, buy whatever candles they have left and make our way to street to see the dancers. A royal display of Pheasant’s feathers emanating from their crowns like rays from the sun. Their bodies swaying, spinning, jumping beneath the darkening sky, the rhythmic rattle of the shells around their ankles enchanting the air, their feet, rhythmically, drumming the Earth, gently waking and beckoning the Dead to join us in our festivities.
They begin to move, and we all move with them. Like a landslide of painted skeletons, candles in hand, we move in unison, rubbing elbows and brushing shoulders with the Dead and living alike. Walking, dancing, laughing, crying, remembering... we follow the dancers. They guide us in reverence and celebration down this street which, on this night, has been transformed into the avenue of the Dead. This entire procession, every move, every step... a grand spell, crafted with the intent of honoring and nourishing the Dead. Each of us playing our part, we cast this spell together as we wind our way towards the cemetery. Here, where the ancestors rest, after paying our respects, my daughters run, laugh and play amongst the gravestones and wooden markers while the rest of us feast and celebrate beneath the pepper trees. As I watch all of this and the warm, soft, sweet bite of churro in my mouth makes me smile, I think to myself, how badly the Dead must long to, again, hear the giggles and footsteps of children, to hear the voices and songs of their people and to smell their favorite foods. Simply to be a part of it all, once again.
Although I wonder, do they long for us at all? Or do we simply long for them? Would they come back and join us if they could? Or have they reached the state we all unknowingly yearn to achieve and are now waiting for us to join them? Rather than dancing them back to us, should we be dancing ourselves towards them? Death is the ultimate transformation. We only fear death because it is inevitable. Not something we can put off or avoid. It is a debt we owe to the Earth, and nobody escapes a debt owed to the Earth. After all, the very soil we stand upon is made of the decayed and digested bodies of the dead which have accumulated over billions of years. At some point it will become our turn to become a part of the Earth that our descendants will then walk upon. At some point, we will cease to live. Yet we will never cease to be. We do not cease to exist when our bodies expire. Each and every atom of every element in our bodies continues to live and thrive. Each atom, holding the very fire that makes and drives us, still burning just as bright as ever, is now diffused into the environment and recycled into the eco system. Every part of us goes on to travel through the warm, dark Earth, nourishing life and bonding with other atoms to become new life forms, which will flourish beautifully, before again dying and once again completing the cycle. This cycle, of which death is the catalyst, is what drives and enables all life. Not just human life. All life. Death is the bringer of life. This debt we owe to the Earth ensures that we remain an integral part of this cycle through our eternal dance with death. Yet, even when we know this, we fail to fully understand and integrate this knowledge into the ways we live and interact with death.
The ancients understood. Many of the Celtic tribes of ancient Eurasia believed themselves to be directly descended from the God of death, which is one of the many reasons why Samhain, a yearly celebration of death, was one of the most important and most widely celebrated tradition throughout the native Celtic lands of pre-Romanized Europe. In Judaic mythology/oral history, famine and death falling upon the land of Egypt paves the path for the birth of the Kingdom of Judah as well as for judaism itself through Moses' receiving of the Torah, which happens to also stipulate that offerings be given at the temple in the form of sacrifice, or more precisely a debt to be paid through death. And The creation tales in the Popol Vuh of the Q’uiche Maya tell of the Hero Twins who would ascend to the Sky to become the Sun and Moon, having been conceived in Xibalba (the place of fright), the underworld, in the belly of Blood Moon, the daughter of one the lords of Death. Life out of death is a common thread through almost all mythologies, the world over. The ancients understood that death is the begetter of life, and therefore the debt we owe if we ourselves wish to have life. They understood the one thing that connects all beings regardless of genus or species, is death. Even the sweet nourishment that is the milk of the Mother’s breast is produced from the nutrients acquired from what has been killed and consumed. For in order to have life, we must suckle at the tit of death. This isn't just an inescapable fact, It’s also a true and beautiful sentiment. Yet still, we fear death, we mock death, we obsess over death, we keep her at arms reach and do what we can to “ward off death” every chance we get. Yet, only because we’ve lost our understanding of death, because we’ve fallen out of step in our dance with her. When we, once again, surrender to her rhythm, felt in the air of this season, and move with her rather than against her, we see that it isn't death we fear. It’s loss, It’s moving on, It’s the inability to see past the veil that triggers our instinctual fear of the unknown which causes us to curse and despise death, instead of embracing and nurturing death the way we were meant to. However, our attitude towards death speaks more to our living consciousness rather than our actual relationship with death, which cannot be altered or avoided no matter how our consciousness perceives it. But, what of our consciousness after death. After our bodies break down and return the source of all life, where does our consciousness find itself?...
...My little girl jumps in front of me with a giant smile on her face and the fire of all her ancestors burning brightly in her eyes “Papi, look!” she exclaims, her little hands cupped together, overflowing with gently radiant orange and yellow marigolds.
I snap out of my trance, look down at my churro and think to myself... Whatever happens, when I finally pass on to go to wherever it is I may be headed to after this life, I just hope the people who remember me, continue to carry me with them and come celebrate with me, every year, when the veil is, again, this thin.
And for the love of Death, I hope they bring me churros.