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A day to remember deceased loved ones fuses faith and culture

When Jennifer Bermejo was growing up in Aguascalientes, Mexico, her family celebrated Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) every year.

She recalls it as a fusion of culture and religion, noting that her family and neighbors always attended Mass to pray for their deceased loved ones. After, everyone joined together for La Catrina parades and gathered in cemeteries, where they continued to offer prayers but also reminisced and paid tribute to their family through song, skits, and favorite foods and drink.

Dia de los Muertos begins at midnight on Oct. 31, when it is said that the gates of heaven open and the spirits of the little children (angelitos) are allowed to reunite with their families for 24 hours. This is Dide los Inocentes, the Day of the Innocents, and coincides with All Saints’ Day.

The following day, Nov. 2, is the actual Day of the Dead, or All Souls’ Day in the Catholic faith.

While the two observances have roots in different parts of the world, the purpose of each is to remember the dead and pray for their souls in purgatory, to help them atone for their sins and move into the presence of Christ.

Dia de los Muertos evolved in Mexico from the rituals of Aztecs and Mayans. When the Spanish arrived, indigenous beliefs and Catholic religious practices merged, combining for a mix of somber celebration in homes and churches, and more lively festivities in secular spaces, and is now celebrated around the world.

Bermejo said the heart of each day centers on prayer, but there are cultural traditions unique to Dia de los Muertos.

Photo by Juanita Bustamante/Miscellany: Students at Nativity School on James Island decorate their sugar skulls.

One of the most important aspects in Mexico is the creation of altars in homes in honor of deceased family members. The displays range from one to seven levels; from simple to extravagant. They are decorated with a cross, candles, and tissue paper cutouts, and filled with objects meant to draw the spirit of the loved one, such as photos, personal objects, and favorite foods.

Bright orange flowers, cempasuchil, are placed all around the altars and in the cemeteries. A type of marigold, the blossoms are said to guide the spirits with their vibrant colors and scent.

Another custom is the sugar skull. Bermejo said she especially liked the brightly painted metal skulls as a child because the jaws moved and made a musical clacking sound. The sugar skulls aren’t typically eaten, but children can enjoy their sweetness. More often they are used as decorations.

The skulls have become so popular that they have evolved into an art form for tattoo artists. People have images of their loved ones inked in elaborate sugar skull designs, in honor of the deceased and in hopes it will bring their blessings.

CNS photo/Victor Aleman, A young girl in a costume representing La Catrina attends a traditional Dia de los Muertos vigil Nov. 1, 2014, at Calvary Cemetery in Los Angeles, sponsored by the Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The festivities included an exhibition of about 20 altars by community groups, businesses, Catholic schools and parishes.

Pan de Muerto, Bread of the Dead, is also placed at altars and cemeteries. Traditional loaves have a top crust shaped into crossed bones, but Bermejo said her family and others also shape the crust into a cross to represent Christ, the Bread of Life.

Another aspect that has spread far beyond Mexico is La Calavera Catrina, first created in 1910– 1913. Bermejo said the artist, José Guadalupe Posada, is from her hometown and the Catrina parade is a huge affair that draws artists and participants from all over.

People walk in parades to the cemetery, where they often spend the day and night. Prior to the celebration, people spend time cleaning, repairing and decorating the grave site. While there is prayer and reciting the rosary, time at the grave also celebrates the living memory of the deceased, and gatherings become family picnics, with food, drink, music, flowers, and even fireworks.

Bermejo, who is the Hispanic ministry assistant at St. Gregory the Great Church, said the tradition of Dia de los Muertos fell away when her family moved to Bluffton in 2005, because they have no cemetery or relatives to visit here. This year, however, she is bringing some of those cultural aspects to St. Gregory on Oct. 31, when children will dress as their favorite saints and participate in Day of the Dead traditions such as painting sugar skulls.

“We’re showing them that the day is about praying for family members who have passed away and remembering them,” Bermejo said.

Other parishes and schools are also teaching children (and adults) about the connection between Dia de los Muertos and the days for All Saints and All Souls.

At Nativity School on James Island, students are making and decorating their own sugar skulls in preparation for a family fiesta on Nov. 3, said Candice Thompson, Spanish teacher. At the lunch, authentic Mexican fare will be offered and all of the sugar skulls will be sold.

Thompson said the project is two-fold: It teaches the kids about the traditions surrounding Dia de los Muertos and the fusion of our cultures, and will also serve as a fundraiser with all proceeds going to help the victims of the hurricane in Puerto Rico, and the earthquake in Mexico.

Nativity has a large percentage of students from Spanish-speaking families, Thompson said, and she tries to do something each year to show the connection between Catholicism and indigenous cultures. In the past, students have also made mini-altars out of shoe boxes for Dia de los Muertos.

Top photo, Creative Commons, Lynda Martinez del Campo: An altar created for Dia de los Muertos incorporates the Catholic faith and cultural traditions including paper cut-outs, cempasuchil flowers, sugar skulls, foods such as Pan de Muerto, and more.

Watch the video about Nativity School, by Juanita Bustamante:

Watch the video about Dia de los Muertos, by Juanita Bustamante:


Photo by Juanita Bustamante/Miscellany: Students from Nativity School show off their sugar skulls.

CNS photo/Jose Cabezas, Reuters: Musicians play a tune next to a tomb during the Day of the Dead at a cemetery in Panchimalco, on the outskirts of San Salvador, Nov. 2. Catholics honor their dead on Nov. 1 and 2 by cleaning and decorating the graves with flowers and spending time next to the graves of their deceased beloved ones.

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