Contrary to popular belief, the Day of the Dead is a celebration that, in one form or another, has existed in many cultures. Having said that, Mexico is credited with making it popular. And for that we can all be quite grateful. But, although it may be known by other names, this practice has existed for centuries in many cultures around the world. Each one has its own method of honoring the dead, its own method of caring for the dead, its own method of dealing with the remains of the dead and so on. If you would like to delve into these varied traditions, I would highly recommend the book From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, by Caitlin Doughty.
With Samhain having just passed we are now moving onward to the Day of the Dead, which is usually celebrated on November 2nd. This is an opportunity to honor our loved ones who have passed over to the other side of the Veil. People will find many ways of doing this. You can also research those many traditions and find what feels right for you. Or you can explore whatever traditions you already follow and find if there is something from that tradition from which you can draw customs and practices. The choice is yours. I have always said that Spirit does not recognize race, culture, creed, etc. But it does recognize when someone is “dialing the phone” and it will be delighted to answer the call. So do not worry about “cultural appropriation” in this matter. The fact that you are honoring the dead is enough.
I have, myself, drawn on a few traditions that I have been adopted into and been born into. I like to use whatever feels right in the moment. I have a few altars in my healing space, and one of those altars is an altar to my ancestors. At this altar I have photos of family members who have crossed over, framed photos of skulls, candles, food for the ancestors, water for the ancestors, salt for purity, a veil through which those on the other side can communicate with me and vise versa. I light a candle for Spirit, a candle for all the ancestors of my many bloodlines, and a candle for the ancestors of all.
What do I mean by “all my bloodlines”? Well, there is not a single one of us on this planet who is 100% anything when it comes to race. Our ancestors way back traveled the world by various means. They encountered other people of various races. And they shagged their way into the gene pool of every one of them. This means that if you were to do some time travel and go back far enough (farther than Ancestry.com could ever hope to track) you would find a variety of people in your bloodlines going all the way back to the very first humans on earth. Most of them you don’t know about and likely never would, if it weren’t for the fact that you could discover more about them through communion with them at an ancestral altar! As humans we have DNA that is shared by Cro-Magnons, Neanderthals, and much, much more. That DNA did not just appear out of nowhere! It is there because our ancestors were members of these pre-historic groups. More and more is being discovered about this every day with new discoveries happening constantly. Often people think about being just one race or another, often based upon where their grandparents originated. But that is only a fragment of the information of our heritage. There is so much more. So I acknowledge the many bloodlines that make up who I am.
What do I mean by “ancestors of all”? By this I mean that there might be different ancestors for different people. And the term “ancestors” for me also includes the ancestors of the trees, animals, birds and so on. I cannot acknowledge that I have a hand without acknowledging all the fingers on it. So the “ancestors” to me include anything that has existed on this earth before I was born and anyone who existed before I was even a thought.
Having said all of this, I must also acknowledge that there are some ancestors in many people’s histories who were not wonderful people and who have done some pretty nasty and evil things. So where does one go with that? I look at this as a learning curve that they were on. Whether or not they learned everything that they needed to learn is up to them. I can acknowledge their participation in the world that was without repeating their mistakes. And from those mistakes I can glean lessons in how to be a much better person. I might not have their photo on my wall above my ancestral altar, but I also will not ignore the fact that they did exist or that they did people wrong, possibly myself included. Nobody is a saint. Nobody is only a sinner. People are complex. One person may grieve their loss while another celebrates the fact that they are no longer a problem. That is the nature of relationships and of human beings.
So as much as I honor the ancestors, I also honor the descendants. That way I am not just blindly accepting the status quo of poor behavior but am instead allowing the future generations the opportunity to live beyond whatever garbage and abuse may have been existing before they came along. It liberates them to become more than just what is expected of them by family or by the ancestors who once were. After all, how is our world to become a better place if we just keep repeating and recycling old behaviors and concepts? So I look at it as “I am the ancestor of future generations, therefore I have a responsibility to do them proud.” Thus, my ancestral altar also acknowledges those before, those after, those here and now, those beyond, seen or unseen, here but not here.
I encourage you to celebrate the Day of the Dead if you feel a draw to that. I also encourage you to honor the ancestors and the descendants every day, regardless of a date on a calendar. As you commune, you will make discoveries about them and about yourself that would otherwise not be possible. In the meantime, Feliz Dia de Muertos!