The funeral home in town has recently changed its name. It is now a “Life Celebration Home.” We are a death-avoidant culture. And the church is, often, little better. Many are deep-sixing funerals for “Life Celebrations.” The irony, the unintended sadness, is that the more we try to banish death, the more troubled about death we become. I think of a recent bride as we were reading the vows at the rehearsal. At “till death do us part” she paused for a long time, then looked at me, troubled, and said, “Do I have to say death on my wedding day?”
On this All Souls Day I am in Mexico City for El Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead. There are no Life Celebration Homes here. Death is treated as part of life, mysterious and awesome, beyond our knowing and control, not to be feared but embraced. In homes, people create an ofrenda, an altar to honor their dead. There are pictures of their loved ones, a pitcher of water and the favorite food and drink of the dead, all decorated with orange bursts of marigolds.
I walk through Panteón Civil de Dolores, the largest cemetery in Mexico City, where families gather on the Day of the Dead. Moms, Dads, kids, grandparents. They decorate the graveside, set up tables of food, bring a boom box or hire musicians to play traditional music. It’s a ritual meal, where the dead partake spiritually of the food and drink and enjoy being with their families. I look at the children, romping near the graves, and I think, Where I was raised, children were not taken to funerals.
Sometimes we have to leave home to see in a different light. Every time we recite the Nicene Creed we affirm our faith in “the communion of saints,” the dazzling truth that when we partake of the Eucharist we are joined in the meal by the hosts of heaven, our plain, ordinary, saintly loved ones among them. But we’ve mostly lost touch with our dead. We don’t think of ourselves as eating and drinking with Mom and Pop and Uncle Ed. But we are, just like those families in the cemetery.
“The dead are not distant or absent,” writes John O’Donohue. “They are alongside us. When we lose someone to death, we lose their physical image and presence, they slip out of visible form into invisible presence.”