Photo courtesy: Susan O. Stephan

Our cat died not too long ago.  My children had both been fond of her, and were very aware of her absence.  My two and a half year old had a lot of questions for me as to where our pet had gone, and I found myself addressing the topic of death with him.  Of course I adapted my explanation for his age and maturity level, explaining that our cat, Amiga was in heaven and that she was happy there playing and eating all of the treats she loved when alive.  He seemed satisfied with my answer, but I know that as my children grow, this difficult topic will need to be addressed again in greater detail.

Death is never an easy subject to address, and yet I think that I was more uncomfortable with the subject than my son was.  I think that a lot can be learned by looking at other cultures’ beliefs and traditions surrounding death. I plan on confronting my own fears on the subject this year by becoming involved with some of the many cultural celebrations commemorating the Day of the Dead.  Perhaps by addressing the topic of death and gaining a different perspective, I’ll be more comfortable addressing this difficult subject with my own children.

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The Mexican holiday of the Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, provides a less scary look at death.  The celebration coincides with the Catholic feast days of All Saints’ Day (November 1st) and All Souls’ Day (November 2nd).  Through the holidays’ celebrations, death moves from being something to be feared, but rather a natural part of the cycle of life.  The deceased are remembered and honored with traditions surrounding the holiday including the building of altars to honor the deceased, using sugar skulls, marigolds and favorite foods and beverages of the dearly departed.  Families get together either at home or at the cemetery to remember and pay respect to their departed loved ones.

Recently I had the privilege of becoming acquainted with Peter Perez who, as a talented artist himself, has made it his mission to bring the Day of the Dead celebrations to communities throughout the United States and the World.  He has been instrumental in organizing festivals throughout California, Vermont, even traveling to Australia where he gave lectures and demonstrations on the topic.  As a result of his efforts, there will be festivities in two cities in Australia and even one in New Zealand this year as well.  The activities involve people of all ages and backgrounds.  People of all ethnicity are given the opportunity to learn about the Day of the Dead and to celebrate it together.  Since we all die, the Day of the Dead celebration can unite people so as to learn, experience culture, and pay homage to our departed loved ones.

Since I am raising my sons to speak Spanish, I believe that it is also essential to expose them to the culture of the language that they are learning.  The Day of the Dead provides many opportunities to increase our children’s language and cultural awareness.  Day of the Dead celebrations are rich in tradition and culture.  Many of the community celebrations include art exhibitions, arts and crafts activities for both children and adults, historical lecture presentations, and interactive activities for families.  These community celebrations are wonderful at building bridges of cultural understanding between different groups and peoples.

If you are unable to find a Day of the Dead celebration, it is still possible to celebrate this holiday with your children.  You could construct a private altar in your own home honoring a deceased loved one or even a beloved family pet.  Take time to talk about the person, to remember them.  Try making sugar skulls or cooking pan de muerto with your children.  Fortunately in today’s computer age, there are a lot of resources on the internet that can lead you through the steps.  I plan to make these sugar skulls with my own children.

Establishing traditions around holidays with your children is a great way to create memories. By celebrating the Day of the Dead, whether it be at a community celebration or in your own home, you and your children will experience culture, have fun, and take time to remember deceased loved ones.  In the words of Peter Perez, “Sharing our family histories and traditions enriches our lives and understanding of each other. The ancient pre-Columbian cultures believed that we die three times…Once when the body ceases to function, twice when the spirit leaves the body, and the final and most tragic death is when we are forgotten.”

Day of the Dead Celebrations in Southern California

Santa Ana, CA:

Hollywood, CA:

Do you know of any Day of the Dead celebrations in your area you can share with us?

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