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Posts tagged ‘Day of the Dead’

Remembering our Ancestors: All Souls

This week is big for many reasons. If you are a kid and you live in North America, you are likely psyched about your Halloween costume. (I know for sure I was, back in the trick-or-treating days!) If you are a parent, you’re not so psyched because of the tidal wave of sugar about to come crashing down upon your house.

What if you are a seeker of meaning though? You might find your way to the holidays around this time of year associated with All Soul’s Day, All Hallow’s Eve and Day of the Dead. (aka: Dia de los Muertos.) All of these celebrations have very ancient european, celtic or pre-columbian roots. And the common thread?

Remembering and celebrating our ancestors . . . our dead.

Why do I think this is important as a seeker of meaning myself? Because when we respect and look with gratitude to our ancestors (and our recently deceased loved ones) their sacrifices made and their gifts to us as we survive into this day — we are more present and aware — more able to live fully in this moment. These holidays and cultural celebrations affirm the very breath we take and our collective experience as human beings throughout time. We come to realize we are all beings with a common thread of experiencing loss, sorrow, joy, laughter, connection, grief, tears and wonder. We are not ever alone.

In Tucson, we have the enormous gift of our own festal culture via the All Soul’s Procession. It happens this weekend and draws people literally from around the block and around the world. It is entirely sponsored by OUR COMMUNITY and happens due to the passion of hundreds of people driven to honor and remember our dead with fearless creativity. I volunteer as an Urn Ambassador, letting people know they can place wishes, prayers or symbolic objects into the urn for burning and release to the sky / the heavens above us. This collective experience is unparalleled in the world. Here is a little video for a peek into the celebration: All Souls Promo short from Leslie Ann Epperson on Vimeo.

The Urn Burns (All Souls Procession)

The Urn Burns (All Souls Procession) (Photo credit: cobalt123)

What will you do to remember your ancestors this week? Even lighting a simple candle with gratitude can be a powerful gesture. Please share in the comments . . . it is fun to learn the varied traditions people uphold around these often obscure holidays, when the veil between worlds feels a little thinner.

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Marigolds and Festal Culture

All Soul's Day procession, Tucson AZ, 2008

All Soul’s Day procession, Tucson AZ

Have you heard people mention how the ‘veil is thin’ this time of year? Ever wondered exactly what they mean by this? You’re likely not alone. This is a time of liminality throughout many cultures and belief systems, wherein the veil between the seasons of autumn and winter or between the worlds of the living and dead are very transparent.

We have our well known and candy-obsessed Halloween, when kids trick-or-treat and grown-ups go to costume parties. All this spookiness comes from ancient traditions like Samhaim and All Soul’s Day. Our neighbors in Mexico celebrate Day of the Dead with gusto and mucho marigolds. And this is just the beginning! The end of October and Early November bring us a vast collection of world holidays and celebrations rarely known by folks in our western culture.  It seems our collective death-distancing mentality in the U.S. also distances us from a whole range of opportunities for celebrating, acknowledging and honoring our dead.

Here is one gigantic exception: The All Souls Procession in Tucson, Arizona. This is a one-of-a-kind, community based, collective festal experience founded by Tucson artist Susan Kay Johnson. She began the Procession 23 years ago with a small handful of friends, to honor her Father. Today it has become a collective experience to observe one painful thread we all have in common: loss. This definition helps describe its origins and intentions:

“Festal Culture”  is the expression and fulfillment of core human needs through public celebration, ceremony, and ritual. The All Souls Procession is an event that was created to serve the public need to mourn, reflect, and celebrate the universal experience of Death, through their ancestors, loved ones, and the living.

I’ve been fortunate to live in Tucson for the past eight years and participate in the procession every year. It is always held the weekend after Halloween, to keep it authentically true and not become a big drunken costume fest. In my entire life, I have never experienced anything remotely like it. It is a collective opening, or leaning into, the experience of loss and humility we all share because one day, we will die. Some people come with a reverence and tenderness for a person, an animal or a concept they grieve. People also come to celebrate loved ones long after making the transition from life into death. And always, some people come just to stand in awe of the mystery. I am an Urn Ambassador, acting as a voice of the Urn. Ambassadors help people throughout the procession realize the significance of the Urn and how they may actively put something into it for release to the elements of fire and air.

The Urn Burns (All Souls Procession)

The Urn Burns (All Souls Procession) (Photo credit: cobalt123)

This ‘Prayer Form’ offers a remote way to download, write expressions and send these in electronically for placement into the urn. During the procession, I’ve witnessed people of all ages and beliefs drawing pictures, writing notes, offering photos and tearfully offering cremains or symbolic objects like dog collars and so on, to be placed with reverence into the Urn and burned during the Procession’s Finale.

Trying to explain this event to someone who hasn’t attended is nearly impossible. This is why as a Life-Cycle Celebrant© and avid believer in the power of healing through collective experiences during ritual and ceremony, I tirelessly call attention toward it! What is possible to sense, whether consciously or subconsciously during the Procession, is the feeling of liminal space I mentioned earlier. Being between worlds. Being vulnerable and open to complete mystery. This space is powerful beyond words. Here’s a peek into it from last year:

And here is a new peek from this year’s event:

All Souls Procession 2012 – teaser from Willow Tale Pictures on Vimeo.

Celebrating life via Day of the Dead

La Catrina – In Mexican folk culture, the Catr...

Image via Wikipedia ~ La Catrina ~ She is often a symbol of Day of the Dead festivities.

Here it is – October already – and our minds naturally turn to celebrations of harvest, Yom Kippur, Halloween, or Thanksgiving. For me, it all starts with baking loaves of pumpkin mesquite bread!

I’m adding one of my favorite holidays to the autumnal mix: Dia de los Muertos. For those of you who may already be enthusiasts or who are just now learning about this holiday, I’m excited to share ideas and resources with you.

Since I practice funeral celebrancy in the southwest and live in Tucson, I pay a lot of attention to rites, rituals and celebrations about death. I am fortunate beyond belief to live near the rich traditions of Mexico, where celebrating the Day of the Dead is central to many family and community traditions. In Tucson, we experience the holiday to various degrees.

For example, this exhibit at Tohono Chul Park is currently running until November 6, 2011. I just visited with a group last week and it is WONDERFUL. If you visit the gallery main page, I encourage you to watch the brief video. In it, I love love love how Curator Ben Johnson says:

Dia de los Muertos is a holiday of remembrance, but it is not one full of sorrow  . . . it is very much about celebrating life and offering thanks to those whom we have loved.

The end date of Tohono Chul’s exhibit is also the day of the famous All Souls Procession here in Tucson. Through a series of festal culture events the culminate in the procession, we celebrate our ancestors and those we love who have departed. (I am really honored to be volunteering as an urn attendant in this year’s procession!)

If you are curious and would like to learn more, the following links provide LOTS of background about the key ingredients for celebrating life by observing this holiday:

  • Altar building ~ creating a doorway where the lands of living and dead can symbolically meet.
  • Food offerings and candlelight vigils ~ at the altars and in the cemeteries within a community.
  • Candy skulls ~ Calaveras made from sugar mostly – or chocolate sometimes – decorate the altars and are loved by children especially.
  • Flowers ~ garlands of marigolds and other specialty flowers of gold and orange become beautiful decorations for altars and cemeteries.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, really! Let me know how you’ve experienced Day of the Dead . . . and if you’ve noticed yourself celebrating life in the midst of doing so.