Day of the Dead helped me find peace after losing my mom

"Maybe a departed loved one simply visits in the form of a beautiful memory that warms, rather than breaks, one’s heart."

By Nancy Fornasiero

The altar that writer Nancy Fornasiero built with family and friends includes a photo of her mom (far left). (Photo: Nancy Fornasiero)

Not wanting to wake anyone, I tiptoe from my bedroom down the terracotta-tiled corridor to the place where the altar has been set up. On it is a colourful tablecloth, framed photos, candles, bowls of treats and assorted ceramic objects. It’s crowned by a spectacular orange-and-red floral arch. I peek into the coffee mug and bowl of chocolates to make sure they’re still full. As I light the candles, a tropical breeze releases the bittersweet aroma of hundreds of marigolds. If you’ve ever been to Mexico around Halloween (or seen the Pixar movie Coco), this sort of altar is familiar to you. It’s a centrepiece of the festival Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

Once a year, from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, Mexicans pause to remember and celebrate deceased family members whose spirits are said to visit the land of the living during this window. For many Canadians, death might seem an inappropriate cause for celebration — too sorrowful or morbid — but Día de Muertos is actually a joyous occasion. With food, drink, dancing and parties, the mood is more carnival than funeral.

So, there I am, standing before the altar that I helped to build together with a group of friends and family earlier that day. Though no one else is there, I still feel awkward and self-conscious. I whisper the words I was advised to say aloud: “Mom, I’d like you to visit. Are you here?” I am skeptical. But hopeful.

Back home in Ontario, my colleague Carmen Gélinas had perked up her ears when she heard that I’d be travelling to Mexico for Day of the Dead festivities along with my sister Christine Picheca. We would be visiting our other sister and Mexican brother-in-law, Donna and Saul Cordova, at their home in Tantoyuca, an inland city in the state of Veracruz.

Carmen isn’t Mexican, but she is a spiritual person who says she often communicates with “those on the other side.” I’ve admitted to her that, despite my Christian faith, I’m not too sure about this whole afterlife thing. “If they’re out there,” I challenged, “why don’t they make their presence known?” But Carmen advised me to take this opportunity seriously. She knew that I especially longed for some sign of my mother, Angie Picheca, who died five years earlier at age 74 after a complicated, drawn-out illness. Carmen explained that you must express aloud your desire to connect — otherwise loved ones won’t know they’re welcome. “When you’re in Mexico,” she urged, “invite your mother to come to you. Say the words. You’ll see.”

The Tantoyuca market overflows with marigolds and cockscombs, traditional Day of the Dead flowers, as families prepare their celebrations. (Photo: Nancy Fornasiero)

Many Mexicans seem to agree with Carmen. During my stay, I learn that Día de Muertos is, essentially, an elaborate invitation to the souls of the departed to return and connect with the living. All sorts of schemes to lure the spirits back to earth are employed. For example, when Donna and I go to the marketplace to purchase papel picado, a must-have decoration for the festival, I ask the merchant why these perforated tissue-paper banners are part of the tradition. She explains that when hung, their vibrant colours serve as signalling flags. Depictions of butterflies and birds are common: the pretty creatures are meant to attract the spirits, who follow them back home. Donna chooses a variety in a rainbow of colours. I notice a cheerful yellow design with a hummingbird motif and add a few of these to the pile, recalling how much Mom loved watching the birds in her backyard. We buy incense and candles, whose scent and light are also said to guide spirits home.

There are other enticements, too. Framed photos of the deceased grace altars in virtually every household, and while they’re meant to honour the ancestors, they’re also believed to be visual guideposts as they travel homeward. The altar’s flowered arch represents a spiritual portal, with the strong scent of marigolds, cockscombs or citrus fruits attracting and guiding the spirits. And in case none of that does the trick, there’s always the ofrenda.

The ofrenda (offering) is unique to each family. The Cordovas set out a variety of tantalizing items on their altar: for Saul’s mother, there is her beloved café con leche and some pan de muerto (bread of the dead), a brioche-like sweet roll frosted with a skeleton design, found in bakeries this time of year. For his papá, there’s a Corona and a few tamales, a traditional Día de Muertos savoury dish. My mom was a coffee lover, too, so a full mug sits next to her photo. Donna has cleverly thought to bring Halloween candy from Canada to place on the altar for Mom. The three of us laugh, remembering how we used to hide our mini KitKats from her when we were kids — Mom had a notorious sweet tooth.

Many Canadians and Americans think Día de Muertos is simply the Mexican version of our Oct. 31 tradition. While the two holidays do have sweets, celebrations and costumes in common, the roots of Día de Muertos can be traced back 3,000 years to the Aztecs. Death was an important part of the ancient civilization’s culture; they celebrated the dead and welcomed their return once a year around August. Much later, during the Spanish conquest, the Catholic Church incorporated the pagan traditions into All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days (Nov. 1 and 2), reframing them through a Christian lens. I was surprised to discover that mass is also part of the contemporary Día de Muertos holiday; churches even display ofrendas and marigolds on the altars. It’s a veritable mashup of two traditions. 

In Tantoyuca, the day Canadians call Halloween is Día de los Angelitos, or Day of the Little Angels. This day is for honouring children who have died — and it’s also the day when living children dress up in costumes. We all stroll into the city centre to see the school kids and the huge papier mâché skeletons that decorate the square. The display isn’t spooky like a Halloween one would be. If anything, it’s amusing, with skeletons dressed in flamboyant outfits, posed as dancers, lovers, cowboys, cyclists and shoeshine boys. There are a few incarnations of La Catrina, the iconic well-dressed lady skeleton sporting an elegant plumed hat. It’s said that Mexicans laugh in death’s face, and this seems to be true. These figures have cheeky nicknames like la pelona (baldy), la flaca (skinny) and la huesuda (bony). The kids scamper around happily and perform traditional dances. We all agree it’s a shame Mom never got to see any of this — she would have loved it, especially the excited children.

We run into Saul’s friend, Carlos Morales, an English teacher and huapango musician dedicated to preserving the region’s heritage through this traditional style of folk music. He says that every region of Mexico has a slightly different version of Día de Muertos; for example, here in the Huasteca region the festival lasts a few days longer and is called Xantolo, a local dialect word that evolved from the Spanish Todos los Santos (All Saints’ Day). It’s widely regarded as one of the most authentically preserved Day of the Dead celebrations in the country. “For most of us, Xantolo is even more important than Christmas,” Carlos tells me. “Think about it: not only do living family members get together, but also the departed ones.” I ask Carlos if he and his peers really believe that spirits travel home. He hedges. “Some of the older generation can tell you amazing stories that will give you goosebumps. My own grandmother would pray by the ofrenda non-stop for three days and change the food every hour to make sure it was warm when her ancestors arrived.” I persist. “But what about you, Carlos. Do you believe?”

“Well . . . no. But I do love Xantolo.” Carlos is one of the leaders of his neighbourhood music-and-dance troupe that will perform along with 35 other groups in a huge spectacle the following night. They’ve been practising for weeks. We wish him luck and assure him we’ll be there to cheer him on.

The next morning, Nov. 1, is what everyone has been preparing for. The spirits of deceased adults are expected today, and thousands of people make their way to the cemetery to greet them. By the time we arrive, there’s already a cacophony. Families have hired musicians — mariachis, accordionists, balladeers, even brass bands — to play for their ancestors. Instruments clash, babies cry, voices shout out to friends and, on the periphery of the graveyard, costumed dancers perform. This couldn’t be further from the solemn, hushed atmosphere we associate with our cemeteries at home. 

This gringa is thrilled to find out that the Cordova ancestors have been laid to rest near a tree — a rare bit of shade in this sweltering place. I’m glad Mom isn’t here, I think to myself. Mom couldn’t tolerate even moderate Canadian summer temperatures; she would have hated this heat. We settle into our plastic lawn chairs and dig into the Styrofoam cooler filled with frosty Coronas and Jarritos, a ubiquitous Mexican soft drink, while Saul and his brothers debate which songs their deceased parents would most like to hear. They pay a few hundred pesos to a pair of musicians, a violinist and guitarist, to serenade their parents.

I survey our surroundings and notice that some families gather inside elaborate whitewashed mausoleums filled with floral tributes and ofrendas, while others assemble around tiny plots marked with modest wooden crosses and just a few marigold petals. Rich or poor, everyone is enjoying this day. But I do wonder about grief. Don’t all of us humans experience it, no matter our cultural conditioning? Is not one person in this whole cemetery desperately sad?

That’s when I notice a young man kneeling on the ground a few metres away. His whole body shakes as he weeps, his eyes covered with a soaked handkerchief. There it is. Grief. I learn that his brother died just two days ago. How long will it take for him to be transformed into someone who can cheerfully visit his brother on the Day of the Dead and place a Corona on the headstone?

I remember that raw emotion. After Mom died, I’d cry anywhere — at work, at a party, wherever. Random explosions of grief. Thinking about her was so debilitating that I began to avoid it. For quite a while, possibly years, I didn’t talk about her. I just parked the memories.

Very late that night, after the dance performances and fireworks in the plaza, our group returns home, pours some wine and gathers around the candlelit altar. Favourite parts of the festivities are rehashed, and more stories about our parents are shared.

My sisters and I acknowledge that despite everything — candles, aromatic marigolds and incense, hummingbirds, imported mini KitKats and out-loud invitations — Mom didn’t make an appearance. But it also occurs to me that since I’ve arrived here, my thoughts have frequently turned to Mom: noticing the things she would have liked or disliked, laughing with my sisters about her quirks, and writing about her in my journal. None of it was painful. In fact, it felt great to think and talk about her. Was it because enough time had finally passed to dampen my grief? Had I simply been inspired by the Mexicans’ positive attitude?

Or how about this: perhaps a visit from a departed loved one doesn’t always materialize in the way it’s said to have happened for the ancient Aztecs and those of Carlos’s grandparents’ generation — with spirits travelling across a great divide to the land of the living. Maybe a departed loved one simply visits in the form of a beautiful memory that warms, rather than breaks, one’s heart. Who knows? Maybe my invitation at the altar had been heard after all.

Nancy Fornasiero is a journalist in Oakville, Ont.


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