What do we do to remember our dead?

How different cultures engage differently with death at this time of the year

by Helena Dolny

I grew up in a Catholic family of Eastern European origins. My mother lived on another twenty-four years after my father’s death. She cherished her good memories and there were three days of the year, his “special” days when she spoke more about him than on any other day: his birthday 28 March; his saint’s name’s day, Antoni (after Sant’Antonio de Padua) 13 June; and the anniversary of his death 30 October.

Another date, All Soul’s Day (2 November) was the day to remember ALL those she’d loved who had died in her lifetime. She lit candles – her energy was low and her spirits dampened.

Growing up, this is how I thought everyone went about remembering loved ones and ancestors.

Then I had a very different remembrance experience – one of festivity and joyous recall. I was visiting a friend in California who worked in a community health centre in a predominantly Latino neighbourhood – many of the residents had Mexican roots. We were invited to a Day of the Dead party at the community centre. It was wonderful. People created memory tables of deceased loved ones – photographs and memorabilia of that person – and garlanded with marigolds.

I have borrowed this practise of  creating “memory tables” for loved ones. For my father I have snuffbox, a Swiss army knife and his gardening notebook. For my late husband I have a tuning fork and some of his writing. For my mother I have a crochet square, a recipe, her medical glossary and a rosary.

I am fascinated by how different cultures engage differently, and all around the same time of year…Day of the Dead 1 November is the Day of the Dead and , 2 November All Souls Day. In addition, what about Halloween on October 31?

I watch my grandchildren pore over store brochures advertising Halloween goodies. One boy wants skeleton’s teeth and a pouch of pretend blood. Another counts his savings and works out if he wants to spend all that money on an outfit for trick or trick. The little girls in New York paint hollowed out pumpkins and neighbours festoon their windows and front doors – skeletons galore.

Does Halloween bear any relationship to the Day of the Dead? I only know it as a trick or treat candy-collecting festival. It turns out that Halloween’s origins are ancient and spiritual, it is an ancient Celtic day of celebration.

The Celts considered 1 November as their New Year and believed that on the night of transition that the boundaries between the world of the living and the world of the dead were blurred. On this festival of Samhain Celts lit fires and wore costumes to ward off ghosts who they thought might visit.

The questions we thought we would discuss at our coming October Death Café is, “What do we do to remember our dead? What have we found to be meaningful?”

Bring your thoughts.