Saturday, October 23, 2010

Ten Questions

How does your religion, either of just childhood or adulthood or both, honor death? How was your loss honored?

Many years ago, when I was taking the class Death and Dying for my degree in religion, I had to interview someone I knew about death, or an aspect of death. I chose my mother, and I interviewed her about her father's death.  I was quite young when he died, and all I can remember is her leaving us for a few weeks with my father. I remember my father being unable to do my long long braids in the morning before school and one of the teachers feeling pity upon me and redoing my Pippi Longstocking-like braids.

My mother came to the United States when she was eighteen or nineteen, and has lived here since then. Her sister was living here with her husband and her five kids. She married my father a few years later and a few more, she had us. She was 23. One pregnancy. Two children.

I don't know what that is like. To be separated from ten of your siblings and your parents and most of your nieces and nephews. To live in a culture that is so wholly different than your own and your language and your everything. And to marry a man that speaks your second language, and be surrounded by his family and rituals, and not have any interest whatsoever in adopting your culture and rituals. They were both Catholic. Being Latino Catholic and Irish Catholic has some overlapping similarities, but mostly, they probably felt very different to my early twenties mother.

When my mother spoke of her childhood or her family, she was possessive. Her family. Her mother. Her country. She didn't share those things with us very readily as children. She kept us at arm's length in that way. She never inclusively said, "Let me tell you about your grandmother. She would say, 'My mother does this.'" And in that way, I felt like all those rituals and her culture were things she was sharing with me. But those things were hers. Always hers. Even her food, she would say, "This is the food of my country." Never, here is our food. Or food from our family.

When I interviewed my mother about her father's death, she explained the death and funeral rituals of Panama, and what she experienced as an adult going back into the culture she only remembered as a child. I had just come back from living in the Sonoran desert in Arizona, immersed in Mexican culture. My ex-husband is Mexican, and his culture was so similar to the one I was surrounded by on weekends as a child, that my memories juxtaposed, fell in a heap and became all part of who I am. Even my Spanish took a Mexican accent at times, despite myself, and sometimes, even today, I call myself a Chicana before I remember that technically I am not Mexican. Still, from my mother's description of her father's death, and returning the following year of Dia de los Muertos, I felt like I could incorporate that holiday into my year not simply because of Arizona, but also because of Panama.

So, when it is Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, I make my own rituals from the years of living on the Mexican border in Arizona, from the Buddhist monasteries I have visited, from my Irish-Catholic father, from midnight masses I have attended around the world. It seems fitting that I who bridge so many cultures and never quite fit into any one properly should make a ritual for just me. And so, as an adult, I think that is what I do all the time, make my own ritual and culture, as I have done again and again.

On Día de los Muertos, I will eat pan dulces, sweet breads, and remember Lucia with marigolds and bright colored flags of skulls. I will meditate and paint jizos. I will tend to Lucia's ofrenda, offering altar, by placing her picture there with skulls and flowers so I can cry from the missing.  Maybe I will sip a Jameson's on the rocks to lubricate the smiles and honor my Irish ancestors. I will honor the part of my heritage that brings the dead out into society for a day of the year by painting my face white and decorating it with the black marks of the calavera, or the skull. I will wear long flowing skirts, and flowers in my hair. I will paint myself dead to honor those who have gone before. I will paint myself dead to remember what we are underneath it all. I will paint myself dead to connect with the ancient part of who I am. I will paint my face like a calavera, to commune with my ancestors, to be part of my daughter's world. Her death. Her underworld. Her afterlife.


  1. I think your rituals sound just right.

  2. Yeah, they sound pretty right to me too.

    Sorry that I haven't commented much lately. I've had to change my aggregator and adjusting to this one is a pain in the butt!



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