31 October 2008

The Living and the Dead

There is enough being written by others about the "El Día de los Muertos" (Day of the Dead) celebrations in Mexico and the sugar skulls and the marigold-like cempasuchil flowers and the all night graveside vigils, etcetera. I really can't add anything new to what has already been written about and photographed many times over. However, I would like to say a few words about the relationship between the living and the dead. At this time of year everyone seems to focus on the Day of the Dead traditions and with good reason because they are so colorful, unique, and culturally distinct. The thing is that in Mexico people seem to visit the cemetery regularly and not just for the Day of the Dead. On any given day if you visit our local municipal cemetery here in Irapuato you will see quite a few living souls. I know people who visit the cemetery at least every two or three weeks, especially on the weekends. In Mexico, the dead, the living, and the yet unborn are all considered to be connected by the fact that they are contained in the mind and consciousness of God. They are just three separate forms of "being"… the past, the present, and the future.

When I was a little boy growing up in Chicago the 1950's it seemed as if, like Mexicans, we had a closer connection to the dead than Americans in general have now. The dead were a part of us. In those days our "Day of the Dead" was Memorial Day which was celebrated on May 30th. Up until the early 60's many people observed the holiday by visiting the cemetery either on or around this date in order to clean the graves, plant flowers, and pay respects to their loved ones who had already embarked on the next great adventure. Then things began to change. On June 28, 1968, the United States Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, which moved Memorial Day to the last Monday in May in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971. By that time the Memorial Day tradition of going to the cemetery and decorating the graves slowly started to fall by the wayside. In the old days people used to visit the cemetery at least once a month during the spring, summer and early autumn. The grave sites usually included little garden-like areas either on top of or along side the graves where people planted flowers. Some of these little flower beds were very intricate, well tended, and beautiful to behold.

My mother had four children and I remember my mom taking the four of us on the Milwaukee Avenue bus in Chicago to the end of the line at Niles and then we would walk to Saint Adalbert's Cemetery. Saint Adalbert's is the largest Catholic Cemetery of the Archdiocese of Chicago (in number of burials). It was established in 1872 to serve Polish Catholics of Chicago's north side. Right near the cemetery there were several plant nurseries and my mom would buy some potted flowers for us to plant. She would also rent a trowel and a large battered green watering can for fifty cents. There was no deposit required. Everything was on the "honor" system back then. All of us kids were expected to carry something and we always brought our lunch with us in a wicker hamper. That was my job, carrying the lunch, because I was the oldest and the hamper was heavy. We always had a wonderful time and my mom enjoyed telling us stories about the people who were in the graves. In this way she kept them alive in our memories. Some of them I had already met before they passed on. Those were great little excursions and I will never forget them. It was a time of great innocence for us.

Fast forward to the present era. The flower beds in Saint Adalbert's are gone. The grass is planted right up to the monuments so the man who mows the lawn will have an easier time mowing. In some cases the monuments have been removed or sunken to ground level and in the new areas the grave markers have to be flush with the soil. The section where my mother took us was full of tall monuments interspersed with trees and flower beds and it was very beautiful. The monuments are still there but without the flowers they look like stark remnants of a lost civilization, and maybe that's exactly what they are. My father used to say that it looked like a "stone orchard". The place where my parents are buried is just a big open field. All of the gravestones are sunken down flush with the soil so the tractor that mows the lawn can pass right over them. There are no flowers to tend. There aren't many living people around either. Mostly there is just the man on the tractor who does the mowing, the man on the backhoe who digs the graves, and here and there a funeral.

This Sunday, November 2nd, is El Día de los Muertos and my wife Gina and I will go to the cemetery to bring flowers and clean the graves. It is always a happy time for me because it reminds me of those days long ago when my mother took us to the cemetery to do the same. The Day of the Dead in Mexico is like a "happening" and it brings the living and the dead together in spirit. There is no worry about making it easier for the man to cut the grass either. The graves are a hodge-podge of shapes and sizes. Some are brand new and some are very old and they all seem to fit together very well, just like the living and the dead. That's the way I think it should be, the past, the present, and the future fitting well together…like a nest of dishes…or as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "an endless chain of countless rings".


YayaOrchid said...

Good food for thought, Bob! I used to be afraid of cemetaries, for what they represented. But now, as a Christian, I see that death has been conquered, and what I used to see as scary, are memorials which really are more for the LIVING, than the dead. The dead have no inking of what is going on here on earth, especially as regards to their tombs. But the living need that connection to their loved ones who are now gone. Funny though, my Mom used to say that we spend more time honoring the dead than the living. She used to say, 'what good are the flowers and the gifts when I'm gone? If you're gonna do something nice for me, do it NOW!'

But I do see the beauty in all the celebration. I see it as art in its purest form.

Babs said...

Beautiful post!

GlorV1 said...

Bob that is a wonderful post. Sometimes the only quiet one can find is in the cemetaries. Enjoy your dia and its so nice to hear of your parents. Take care.

Steve Cotton said...

Bob -- What a coincidence. I was just thinking about the familiy stories that are probably now lost because my brother and I did not pay attention to my mother on our trips to the cemetery when we were young. It is a sad loss.

Tancho said...

You are fortunate Bob, that hopefully traffic does not come to a gridlock like here in Patzcuaro. What was a nice tradition has turned into a commercial hoopla! Enjoy and honor, we have to trek to the outskirts to not be besieged with hordes.I enjoy going there several days later..... Times have changed and I for one am having a difficult time changing, plot me down 50 years back!

Bob Mrotek said...

Yaya, remeber the last thing that Pope John Paul II said before he died..."Don't be afraid".

Babs and Gloria,
Muy amable. Gracias.

Steve, don't you just wish that we wrote them down?

Ken, not so fortunate. I got caught in a gridlock trying to get to the cemetery today (Nov 1). I'm with you on the changes. When you figure out how to go back please take me with you.

Billie Mercer said...

Bob, we have been out of town and I'm just now getting around to reading this post. I wrote something similar yesterday but you said it so much better than I. Beautiful post.

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.