Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Dia de Los Muertos

Burying the dead is a solemn ritual in nearly every culture. People of Greek descent shriek, tear at their hair and clothing, sob loudly and share their emotions very publicly. The Wiccan tradition includes a gathering where a poem is read and various herbs are sprinkled on the ground to encourage rebirth. Some cultures use animal sacrifice to appease the gods, others have a wake or feast following the memorial service.

Talking about death is difficult for most of us, but as we age, we begin to form definite ideas about our wishes for our own "death ceremony", whatever that may be. I have a friend who has ordered that nobody be allowed to cry at her funeral. She would like everyone to wear bright colors and share stories of her life, eschewing the traditional wearing of black and public mourning. My husband and I have decided that we would like to be cremated upon our deaths and I was surprised to find that he was nervous to share that decision with his family, lest they object for some reason.

I have known families with children who have died that refuse to move from the town where the child is buried, lest the child's grave be abandoned. Our link to the living is powerful, and at times, it seems as though our ties to the dead are no less important to us. Many who have lost loved ones have attached themselves to the importance of having a physical, tangible memorial to that person.

Some of the most heinous crimes we can conjure up involve desecration of cemeteries and exhumation of the dead. There are those who have been known to discard of bodies in mass graves for profit or simplicity, and those who have manipulated the bodies of the dead for their own pleasure. Autospsy and dissection of the human body has forwarded the causes of medicine and science immeasurably, but there are those who object strenuously to donation of one's body to science after death.

Mary Roach authored a wonderful book called "Stiff" in which she investigated what happens to bodies that are donated to science. I read it with complete abandon and found myself laughing and crying and, at times, nauseous. I left it with a sense of awe at the ways we human beings have changed our views of death and dying over the centuries. Autopsies and dissections were punishable by death mere hundreds of years ago, but as the wonders of surgery became more and more known, we have adapted our laws to allow for medical advances in order that we might avoid death for longer periods of time.

I empathize with the desire to have a concrete, tangible altar to visit and honor the dead, but personally, I find the intangible memories of my loved ones more satisfying. I can sit at home with a cup of tea and my animal companions and conjure up my great grandmother's legacy. Her strength and humor are more real to me than the gravestone which bears her name and date of death. I recall her love of strays of all kinds, people, animals, plants, and her overriding compulsion to care for them for a little while. Her vitriolic hatred of Ronald Reagan was terrifically amusing to me as a teenager and I loved it when she would see him on television and curse in Ukranian while spitting on the floor. I remember watching The Wizard of Oz with her for the first time and her childlike giggles of glee and wonder at the "special effects" of the flying monkeys still echo in my head. I hear her sotto voice sometimes when I am tempted to say no to my girls yet again and I feel the silken wrinkles of her hand covering mine on the wooden spoon as I stir the piroshky dough. My heart is full of her and my head follows its lead. Her legacy will outlive any stone memorial I could erect so long as I am committed to sharing it as she did.


Carrie Wilson Link said...

Let's get "underneath" why you'd read a book like that! Ewwwwwww...

Michelle O'Neil said...


This is really beautiful. I love the description of your grandmother spitting.

Bodies are temporary, love is eternal.


Jenny Rough said...

There's another book out called Remember Me that is also supposed to be funny and good.

Amen to Michelle's comment.

Anonymous said...

That's really cool, Kar.. I was just saying to someone tonight the way I remember my dad is by the name he gave me and that I was his 'little Angel' regardless of what's on my birth certificate. And my friend who died when I was in college used to call me Angelica. He was the only one who did. I guess I just like to remember the ways they made me feel special and in the ways they were special to me. Concrete things are nice, and I treasure those things, but it's in my heart where they remain. always manage to make me cry. How do you do that?

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