A year or so ago, we traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a vacation and to attend an annual folklorico dance festival. It is a major tourist event in this far Southern state and a time of regional family reunions.
For us, this was yet another opportunity to dip into a foreign culture, enjoy its cuisine, walk its old streets, and purchase its crafts.
As much as we love to make these trips, I am increasingly aware of the inevitable self-observation that I come as a voyeur, or, at best, an amateur anthropologist. And every time I return with a suitcase full of artifacts, a head full of enchanting music, and the dozens of photographs we stick in albums, I am more and more conscious of the fact that I am appropriating, stealing, in some ways, the art and culture and religious affections of the people who have welcomed me into their world.
So we put up our altar and read our stories and talk about the beliefs of a people who are not represented in our community, with deep appreciation of their gift to us.
With full knowledge of what your festivals and rituals mean to you.
With apologies for celebrating The Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, out of proper time and place.
May we use your lives respectfully, and your wisdom with open hearts and minds. May we learn from you something about the meaning of life and the meaning of death.
Much of what has been read this morning, and the stories I will share in this homily, are taken with credit from a chronicle of this holiday written and photographed by Mary J. Andrade, a journalist-anthropologist who took special care to uncover and illustrate its religious significance.
She traveled the Mexican states that most widely and deeply celebrate The Days of the Dead. Talked with the people, listened, and recorded, and wrote her book, half in Spanish and half in English. Catching the cadences, the rhythms of the language, that tell us so much more about the meanings.
When we were in Oaxaca, we were told that the Fiesta we came to see in a large stadium overlooking the city were official celebrations of the agricultural contributions of the state, attended by higher-up government officials, a major booster event.
We also learned that the native peoples who had been punished severely over the centuries for, instead of embracing European Catholicism, continuing their own cultural and religious practices, have, in fact, inserted their old stories — myths and legends — into the colorful and spectacular dances. An artistically seditious act, and a statement of the endurance of beliefs and practices.
So it has been with Los Dias de Los Muertos, the most important holidays of the year in Mexico, especially in rural areas.
We are told that the origins of the Days of the Dead, which will be celebrated on what we call Halloween and the two days after, were dated long before the Conquistadors, the Spanish conquerors, in the 1500s. The concepts of death and afterlife that shape and color this annual celebration existed in the ancient indigenous cultures, as well as the Aztec culture that had previously attempted to swallow up the old ways.
When the Europeans arrived with their All Saints Day and All Souls Day, celebrated next weekend by many Christians all over the world, the rituals and practices of the Olmec, Toltec, and other native peoples were joined — or, actually, in many cases, secretly inserted — into the new culture and religion.
Just as the spiritual beliefs and traditions of the Celtic culture, the Druids, the Wiccans, were also assimilated into, or stolen by, the pre-Reformation Christian church in its All Souls Eve and the day following. Nonsensically, if we look at the ways in which their basic beliefs about dying and death are so different.
Because, if anything can be generalized about the Christian view of death, it is that there is a solid line between life and death.
Even if there is a wild wake following a somber funeral, or generous offerings to the surviving families of cakes and casseroles, there is a finality about the parting. The dead go on to an afterlife, a heaven or hell, and their return to life will come only with the Second Coming of Jesus, and then only the righteous.
There are angels in some circles, even on television, the special ones who return to do God’s work, and some official Saints who are honored and even worshipped. They are granted a holy ticket back. But they are few and far between.
But, for the ordinary person, the man who worked the corn fields or brewed the beer, the woman who scrubbed the plaza or baked the daily bread, the line is drawn.
Candles may be lit, like in the old times, for those who are departed, but it has long since been forgotten that the dead actually were invited back with the striking of the flames.
Invited back, not feared, not given treats so they will go away.
A poem by Julie Sopetran, a contemporary Spanish poet, describes the tension — fearing and mourning death, or accepting and celebrating the life in death:
Woman with the somber gaze,
Tell me what do you see in the Candles?
are they ghosts in the night
or are they flowers of the earth?
Or another poet’s question, the author unknown:
What is death?
Is it the glass of life broken into a thousand pieces,
where the soul disperses like perfume from a flask,
into the silence of the eternal night?
If a generalization can be made about the Mexican attitude towards death, it would be that the old religions taught, and the people still believe, that death is not an ending. In the Purepecha tradition, when a loved one dies, we are told that the closest relative prays to the Creator and repeats “I give this person to You. I deliver the dead one to You. I do not cry. I do it gladly.”
Knowing that at least one or two days a year, he or she, young or old, will not only be remembered, but welcomed back into their family and home. Marigolds and other bright colored flowers are placed on an altar, their petals strewn on the floor. A mat is placed on the ground to make arrival more comfortable. Candles are lit. Bread and fruit are offered. And paper cuts in the shapes of butterflies are placed there as well.
Butterflies abound in the fields and communities, a sign to them that the dead are indeed hovering close by, and that early in the morning on November 2, their spirits in the form of butterflies will return for a homecoming.
Now matter how the day is celebrated, in many Mexican towns and states, they live and die with the understanding that there is peace and happiness in the life to come. Early in life, children are taught to consider death as a step towards the real meaning of life, to be unafraid of death, as Mary Andrade writes, and to honor the memory of family members.
She tells us about what she describes as an incredibly moving ceremony in a church on one Southern Mexico island as parents, brothers, and sisters gather to remember and welcome back those who have never known either the joys or sorrows of adulthood.
With orange flowers, with wooden toys, with comic books and chocolate.
The Vigil of the Little Angels is a learning process for children on the matter of life and death, and a way that they can participate from their earliest years in a time of re-welcoming and honoring those who have died.
To accept real and spiritual offerings as first the little ones, and then the adults, return fleetingly, like butterflies, and depart again.
If there has been any generalization to be made about liberal religious view of death, it would be, as Unitarian minister William Murry describes in his book, A Faith for All Seasons, it would be that the majority do not believe in a physical afterlife or the return of the dead in any manifestation.
No day of reckoning or reincarnation. Death is final.
In our tradition, there is a line that goes up between the living and the dead. While we do not fear death in the way that people who believe in the fires of hell. We tend, instead, to abstract death or universalize death.
As Murry writes, religious liberals see death not as a perpetual punishment or reward, but a part of natural process. People are not chosen to die out of some Greater Plan, instead we die as nature’s way of making room for others. It is not good or bad. It simply is.
Death, Murry says, is not the meaning of life. The meaning of life is in the struggles and triumphs of living. It is enough, he tells us, to live with courage and dignity.
He says that religious liberals believe that life and love are stronger than death. And that our immortality comes, not in eternal life, but in the sense that who we are and what we do lives on after we die.
As our liberal faith, our UU tradition, begins to more openly and fully explore other threads of spirituality and religion. As we move as individuals from rejection of traditional religious literalism to acceptance, and even embracing, of the underlying metaphors.
As we free ourselves to re-appreciate symbol, I have hopes that we will find ways, rituals of our own, that break down the walls between life and death, evoke and invoke the spirit of the spirits of our own dead.
With chocolate and candles, with butterflies and beer.
With joy, not fear. With appreciation of the eternal life, of life and death.
May it be so.