Guest post by Kateyanne Unullisi
Why would women who work with the dead celebrate death?
Home funeral guides Sara Williams and Jessica Caldwell show up to help families and friends care for someone after death, at home. They encourage families to tend with their hands to the final needs of the dead – how it used to be.
They believe that death, something most of us hate to contemplate, holds the key to celebrating life.
And from opposite sides of the country, they know how to throw a great Day of the Dead celebration in their home and school.
Sara, of Graham, a town just west of Raleigh-Durham, NC, can be called in the middle of the night or hours before a family gathering to help other families care for a body. She says that celebrating the Day of the Dead is a “reminder that death is merely a part of life, part of the same continuum of respect and reverence for, and remembrance of, our beloved deads.”
“There’s a carefully kept secret that I’m going to let you in on,” says Sara. “You are going to die. I know! Right?!”
Jessica, a home funeral guide living in Tenino, WA, near Mt. Rainier, once worked in a conventional funeral home and cemetery. She stresses the human side of Day of the Dead celebrations, which replace plastic costumes and decorations of horror and violence, into an experience where families come together to celebrate life and death.
Jessica says, “This is a lively celebration based in a belief that birth and death are a continuum. That the dead are not to be feared, but welcomed into our homes to share with us the food and drink of the living, just like a home funeral.”
“I’m a Halloween hater,” Sara says. “The crappy candy, the cheap costumes, the cleaning up, the disgusting pumpkin guts. So when I learned about the Mexican holiday around the same time of year, Dia de los Muertos, I was instantly captivated. Here was a culture that got death.”
A culture that gets death. Mexicans take this time to embrace their dead. It’s a family gathering time – visiting together on the graves to tell stories, picnic, and sing. They cook their ancestors’ favorite foods and serve them too, on little dishes.
And ancestors can be the little ones who have died too. This is an especially caring time to acknowledge pregnancy loss, babies and children with special flowers, images, gifts and treats on private ofrendas, altars, in the home. These are covered with marigolds, photos, food offerings and heirlooms. The Mexican people spend time remembering – even teasing – the deceased, in hopes of visits from them.
Day of the Dead falls on the first few days of November. It’s the same time of year as All Saint’s Day, Halloween, and Samhain – the time of final harvests, and a time when the veil between life and death is thinner.
“It’s the time of year,” Sara says, “when friends and relatives – even pets – who have died are given divine consent to visit with us.”
Is she ever fearful? “Absolutely not! For me to be with an actual dead body is nothing short of a great gift. It teaches me (while hopefully I am teaching others present) that we have nothing to fear.”
This school swapped candy and costumes for culture. Jessica wanted to bring meaning into her private, rural elementary school. She says, “I knew our Halloween event sent children home from school on intense sugar highs, often traumatized from costume anxiety. And it left our school community feeling a non-descript form of emptiness.”
So she began researching other cultures and ancient traditions to find more meaning “for this important and mysterious time of year.” The answer was right in the classroom.
“On the day of our school celebration,” Jessica said, “a student’s mom from Mexico helped us transform two long tables into a beautiful alter with traditionally-made Calaveras (sugar skulls) candles, marigolds, and incense.” Students put pictures and symbolic relics of family, friends or even pets who had died there, and ceremonially served food from homemade dishes too.
“Instead of candy, families shared a hearty harvest potluck that evening, to come together and celebrate our care for one another,” Jessica says. Earlier, students helped create a ‘Forest Walk’ in a wooded portion of the campus. “Going into the entrance,” says Jessica, “meant they were leaving the world of the tangible and entering the world of spirit and mystery.” Lit with lanterns and pumpkins that families had carved, it ended at a bonfire surrounded by straw bales, and apple cider heating in a cauldron.
Jessica says that being close to the dead, whether as a home funeral guide or at Day of the Dead celebrations, help her experience the teachings of impermanence and understand the fragility of life.
“Many friends and family would ask Jessica if it was strange being close to a dead body. Truly, my response has always been no. Being this close to death has given me less to be afraid of in life,” she says.
Host a Day of the Dead Celebration at your home or school
- To prepare at home, send invitations letting your guests know to bring photos and memorabilia. For a school, include parents well-ahead in the planning, which will replace sugar and costumes with meaningful sharing, ceremony, and cultural learning. Jessica’s school spent time in the classroom teaching about the traditions around early November, and planning for their harvest event. They made lanterns and decorations, and families brought carved pumpkins, poems and pictures of their relatives for the altar, and food to share.
- On Sara’s Day of the Dead invitations, she lets people know that they will participate in building the ancestors’ altar, a powerful symbolic gesture from hearts and memory. She asks that guests bring a photograph, marigolds, vigil candle or something special to honor and remember their deceased. Tip: check out the tall religious candles in the Hispanic section of your grocery store for some great choices.
- Create a colorful altar, with lots of empty space for folks to place their offerings to their ancestors. For preganancy loss, babies and children, perhaps plant a tree in memory in the early spring, and then each year during the ceremony, use a small branch or some leaves from it on the altar, along with other remembrances of an especially tender loss. Bringing names into the open, to share with others, is a way to support and care for one another in life.
- Schools can invite families to create a special dish to share at a community potluck. Remember that feeding your ancestors is an important part of the celebration, so be sure you make a plate for them and add small servings (including drinks) for those you are remembering.
- Sara says that Mexican food is surefire bait for her guests, who won’t stop talking about how they ate pan de muerto (dead bread – a sweet bread you can make or get from your local Mexican bakery). She serves tamales, chalupas, and pico de gallo, with carnitas (shredded pork) on the grill and a big pot of seasoned black beans. Plus tortillas, chips, salsa, and guacamole. End the night with delicious tres leches cake (three milk cake).
- Create meaningful ceremony. Sara says that “each year, people thank me for giving them the chance to honor their dead and celebrate their lives.” When Sara makes an “altar call,” everyone proceeds to the ofrenda, where she reads about the reverential aspects of this holiday and why it is important to pause and remember those no longer with us. She often finds appropriate “All Saints Day” prayers to use, and guests gather in a circle to sing.
- Jessica’s school remembered those who died in a similar way. Each family lit a candle in memory and the group recited, “To our loved ones, here we do invite you to return home this night, to share with us once again the food you loved in life. May these tokens of our love renew and refresh you, and merry may we meet again.”
- If you have the space, a fire or bonfire is an important part of the fiesta. Sara says it helps keep the evil spirits away, and Jessica stresses the community warmth of gathering together around a fire to share stories and cider.
Jessica’s children never knew their grandfather. “To create a space and time in which to bring him alive through stories and by inviting him to be close, created a very spiritually fulfilling event for me, she says. “This is a loving celebration, not a Ouija board game or séance to spook our nervous system. It is spiritual care for both the living and the dead.”
Watch this short film of a little girl mourning the death of her mother to learn the true meaning of Day of the Dead in Mexico Dia De Los Muertos by Whoo Kazoo (Used with permission from TheCGBros. Do not download or repost please.) 3 minutes
Kateyanne Unullisi, Sara Williams, and Jessica Caldwell are home funeral guides and serve on the board of the National Home Funeral Alliance, a non-profit organization that helps families remember they have the right to care for their own after death – and how to do it.
Photo of Sara Williams:
Photo of Jessica Caldwell: