Finding faith on Day of the Dead

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Photo by Mark Butkus

Once I drove through Michoacan, Mexico, where night vigils in the cemeteries lit up the town. I took the road around Lake Patzcuaro stopping where flowers and candles decorated the graves. In one home, a life-size altar had been built and family members greeted neighbors and strangers alike with food and drink.

It was almost 11 p.m. by the time I arrived for the celebration. A stage was set up in the center of town. Dancers, live music, food, beer stalls, and a mercado would keep people up all night, until they wandered from the bustle of the town fiesta to the solemnity of the town's two cemeteries.

People construct shrines out of zempasuchitl, a golden flower similar to a marigold. A woman stood by a three-foot tall image of the Virgen de la Salud, the Virgin of Health. I asked her who she was remembering.

"My husband," she said quietly. "He died of cancer."

He was a devotee of this image of the Virgin Mary and he prayed to her often while he was ill.

That made me wonder, how is it that in the face of death one keeps the faith?

It was hard for me when my tía Fanny died of cancer. As I sat by her bedside, tía was cranky and delirious. But once, she had been a pioneer.

My aunt was born in Texas but made the journey to Mexico with her Mexican husband and two U.S.-born children in the 1980s.

I remember visiting their small town just south of Acapulco. My cousins, Simon and Gloria, thrilled me with stories of La Llorona, the weeping woman who drowned her children, and visits to the cemetery with more scary stories.

When death befell my tía Fanny, neighbors gathered for her wake. They placed her body in her living room and prayed the Rosary. For the funeral, they carried her coffin through the streets to a small white church off the town square. Tía insisted she have a Catholic burial, and she was worried because her daughter is now evangelical. But Gloria honored her mother's wishes. Tía had a Catholic mass and was buried in the town cemetery where a mariachi band serenaded her one last time.

All of this celebration of life and resolve at the time of death has brought me closer to understanding it. Death is no longer something I fear.

After spending time in Mexico and hearing laughter and music on the Day of the Dead, I think of those close to me who have passed on, and how this year I will build an altar to them with their favorite things.

This essay originally ran on WBEZ's radio program Eight Forty-Eight and you can listen to it here. It is an excerpt from a travel memoir I am writing about the four years I lived in Mexico

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