When I became aware of the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) ceremonies in Mexico and in some Mexican-American communities in Texas, it was a revelation to me and seemed sort of spooky but fun. Anglo Texans have adopted some Day of the Dead trappings as an addition to our celebrations of All Hallows Eve and Halloween. (Texans, apparently unlike our brethren in Arizona, treasure our shared Mexican heritage. Or most of us do, anyway…)
I think most Protestants miss the magic of some of the Catholic ritual, most without realizing it and be damned if they’d admit it. Humans apparently need ritual and magic and a sense of being able to address The Gods somehow with some tool. We pay people to be our “ministers” or shamans, even the most steely-eyed Protestants of us. The story of Jesus as actually told in Protestant churches is impossibly filled with hoodoo and magic and spilt blood, allegory and horror, but all of that is merely alluded to. Only the Catholics come right out and say that it is really magic and stuff really does happen in the ritual of the bread and wine and that you really can help pray your relatives out of purgatory and into heaven, as I understand it anyway.
So, it came to me that I would set up a little “altar” to my newly dead mother and my dead father and light a candle like we see in all the big cathedrals we visit as tourists in Europe. I have no idea what I am doing, and barely why. I just feel a yearning to do something more concrete than mourn, or cry, or think about them. More concrete and yet totally allegorical and magical, in fact.
Mankind has been lighting stuff and waving it around and using the smoke to carry prayers for thousands of years, of course. Plants like sage in the Native American religions, remnants of slaughtered animals on the altars of the Jews, candles in cathedrals, those incense burners the priests wave in the mass. We hope the smoke, the aroma, will carry all the way to God and he will hear our pleas. We ritualistically roll a joint and pass it around the circle of friends as the fragrance of skunk weed lifts to the sky. To me the candle’s flame is like an ongoing prayer for my parents’ souls that carries my love and admiration and longing to them, I hope.
It is odd to me that I find myself doing this, or even thinking it. I am not religious. I have no concept of “God”, do not particularly care if he exists or not, and do not find that worrying about my own afterlife is a profitable enterprise. I hope, but I do not worry. No religion has a hold on me, or power over me one way or another. I think one basically as silly as the next. So what on earth has possessed me to set up an altar now?
I think trying to come to terms with my mother’s death, in the midst of my own battle for life against cancer, has caused this. Mourning is difficult for me. Big boys don’t cry, and Texas men are made of stronger stuff. My ancestors tell me to buck up and get on with it. Well, sometimes you just have to cave to the need for ritual, for healing balm, for something outside your own little tiny speck of self. I guess this would be it. God bless you and keep you, Mother and Dad. He’ll be needing a good laugh, after all...