San Diego. -- Come Halloween, my friends and family will be thinking of costumes and candy. I'll be assembling my altar to the dearly departed in my awkward, romanticized rendition of the Mexican Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.
Octavio Paz once said death "burns the lips" of the inhabitants of New York, London or Paris. "The Mexican, on the other hand, frequents it, ridicules it, fondles it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. It is one of his favorite toys and his most permanent love. . . . He doesn't hide from it or hide it; he looks at it face to face with impatience, disdain and irony."
I first caught a whiff of this blatant recognition of death in Guanajuato, a baroque colonial city whose thin, dry air mummifies the dead. Outside the mummy display, vendors sold sugar skulls dripping with icing and glitter. I learned to make a joke of the dark tunnel of human skeletons posed as if sweeping a floor, or holding a conversation. As my friends gagged and groaned, I posed for a macabre snapshot beside a glassed-in adolescent, and felt an immense surge of relief. I sensed that my attitudes toward death and the deceased were far too serious and Catholic, in the most limited sense of the word. I decided to lighten up when it comes to death.
Maybe it comes from being a fourth-generation European American, this ponderous burden of gloom -- a crippling mix of embarrassment, shame, guilt and repressed emotions. I went to my share of wakes as a kid, and probably sang at 50 or more funerals as a grade-school choir girl. To this day, I think in Latin at memorial services. I was exposed to death, but certainly never heard anyone laugh at it. Death meant Heaven or Hell, saints or sinners. The dead were to be revered, respected -- and rarely discused.
In Mexico, death in the form of skeletons, skulls and saints is a constant companion. On All Souls' Day, November 1, death is a holiday. Ancient Aztec, Maya, Olmec, Nahua and Tarahumara traditions blend with more recent Roman Catholic rituals as the living embrace the dead. From Tijuana to Cancun, families and friends parade toward cemeteries, arms overflowing with gladioli, marigolds, tuberoses and baby's breath. A cloud of copal incense smoke mingling with melting beeswax settles over a crowd so dense it's impossible not to walk over the graves.
The dead are invited into the homes of their relatives and friends, and in some parts of Mexico are encouraged to hang around until the end of November. Altars to the deceased are assembled in Mayan thatch-roofed oval houses, in Mexico City living rooms and in Lacandon caves. The styles differ, but most include pictures of the deceased, flowers, candles, incense, traditional foods and special treats beloved by the departed -- a pack of cigarettes or bottle of pulque, perhaps.
The dead are invited to feast on savory traditional meals; the living finish the meal in the morning. Some cultures sprinkle a trail of flower petals leading to the front door, so the spirits can find their way. Some hang dishes with food on trees outside the house, so that those souls who have no living relatives will not be forgotten.
Public altars are assembled in museums, churches, plazas and parks. Pundits and poets compose witty calaveras, verses mocking everyone from politicians to parish priests, celebrating the inevitability of death. Street stands and shops are filled with Dia de los Muertos supplies -- orange and purple cloths and ribbons, incense and herbs, skull breads, skull candies, skull statues, paper cutouts with leering skeletons.
There is no escaping death if you happen to be in Mexico when the spirits come home. Which is why I return every year -- to Michoacan, or Oaxaca, or Mixquic. I'm learning to laugh and joke and talk about death; I'm learning to bring the dead back into my life.
Now my front yard is filled with pungent orange marigolds, my version of the cempoalxuchitl flowers on Aztec altars and graves. Soon I'll pick a spot for my altar in my new home, and hope my new husband isn't too horrified.
I'll put up a snapshot of my father sitting in his favorite chair, reading to two of his kids. He died in that chair at 52, when I was 19 years old. For 20 years I shoved his memory aside with a mixture of sorrow, anger and futility. I don't have his picture on display at any other time of the year, but I bring him out for Dia de los Muertos. Maybe the more I get used to having him around, the more I'll be willing to let him stay.
I also put up a picture of my Aunt Jean, who died just a few years ago. I loved her and grieved for her without the burdens of rage and hostility that come between parent and child. She was an admirable, gregarious, generous woman who sincerely encouraged me to be who I am. In the picture on my altar she's about 70, sitting at a cafe table outside Manhattan's Lincoln Center, laughing.
I put out a bottle of Scotch and a box of Benson & Hedges for Aunt Jean; my dad gets gin and unfiltered Pall Malls. My collection of skull and skeleton figurines help put death in its place.
The altar has the feel of white noise, a presence I am often unaware of but cannot ignore. It brings memories both painful and amusing, in controllable amounts. I play with its contents, adding a can of sardines, a rhinestone brooch, a pair of monogrammed cufflinks. I remember others who have helped create me -- nuns, relatives, friends -- living and dead. Maybe this year I'll add pictures of Aunt Margie, the godmother who died when I was 3, and my grandparents.
Sometimes I look at my living loved ones and wonder what I'll arrange for them, when it's their time to join the altar. Somehow, I find that most reassuring.
Maribeth Mellin is a free-lance writer and photographer.