Death can easily consume a family with grief and sadness.
But for Catholics, death is also a time of remembrance and communal celebration of life.
Those celebrations are most apparent on Nov. 2, All Souls’ Day and Día de los Muertos, also known as Day of the Dead.
Though it’s not a holy day of obligation, many parishes and Catholic schools are finding ways to observe the day which has roots in the Latin American culture. Día de los Muertos has blended over time with culture and Church tradition, but the intent has always been the same.
“It’s a time for us to stop and remember all those who have gone before us marked by faith,” said Sr. Ginger Downey, director of the Office of Worship and Liturgy.
With Nov. 2 falling on a Sunday this year, their celebrations may take on a special meaning. The All Souls Day readings will take precedence over those scheduled for Ordinary Time giving more Catholics a chance to honor the dead.
Some families celebrate the spirit of their deceased loved ones by making their favorite foods. Some bring the food to the gravesite and visit awhile.
Others place the food, photos, favorite games and flowers on a homemade altar at home or in the church.
Students at St. Theresa School make an altar of remembrance, or ofrenda, in the campus’ ramada. It’s filled with crosses, rosaries and names and photos of deceased loved ones within the parish family.
The seventh-graders lead a procession into the ramada from the four cardinal directions like the Aztecs did. They carry candles and pictures that depict saints.
Each grade level creates a piece of art for the celebration. Some paint skeletons, others make ceramic pottery to hold the food while others build mini altars thus depict a deceased family member enjoying his or her favorite things.
“You will see images of death, but in a colorful or comical form,” said Karen Sotelo, a Spanish teacher who organizes the school’s celebration. “It’s nothing to be fearful about death because of Christ’s resurrection.”
The idea is to see death as the next step, Sotelo said.
Sr. Ginger agreed.
“If you look at it, it’s laughing at death. Our faith tells us there’s something greater than that,” Sr. Ginger said of Día de los Muertos and All Souls’ Day. “There’s also a glimmer of hope in that one day we too will join the other side and be with those we love.”
That’s the point that John Hermosillo, a parishioner at St. Charles Borromeo in Peoria, hopes comes across in his artwork. He makes Day of the Dead crosses among other crosses and religious jewelry.
“I don’t want to put anything on the cross that will offend anybody,” Hermosillo said. “That’s my number one priority.”
His Day of the Dead crosses feature hand-painted skeletons and skulls.
Hermosillo took a gamble earlier this month when he displayed his handmade crosses during a Phoenix art night. The crosses featured decorated skeletons, or calacas, on them.
He said people were drawn to the pieces.
“None of it is gaudy. It’s fun,” Hermosillo said.
Now, he’s hoping the community will be able to have fun with the idea of death too. Hermosillo is building the main community altar for the City of Chandler’s annual Día de los Muertos celebration and festival Nov. 1.
“It’s going to be a beautiful piece,” Hermosillo said.
The upper part will look like the top section of a church with saints — supposedly the patrons of those who died — peering out of the windows.
The tiered altar will have space for the community to place photos of deceased family members. They can also purchase a candle to light around it.
Bridget Chavez, Spanish teacher at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Glendale, also has her students create a makeshift altar in the parish hall and decorate it with photos of their ancestors. Then they offer personal prayers for the deceased.
She uses class time to openly discuss death. Chavez said it helps students view death in a new way.
“It is a time to be happy, not sad, and to celebrate the life the family member shared with us having served God’s purpose to completion,” Chavez said.
Honoring the dead in this way often brings grieving families closure, said Steve Raml, liturgist at St. Thomas More Parish in Glendale. Parishioners bring and place photos of their deceased friends and family members around the baptismal font for an All Souls Day vespers service.
The evening prayer includes a reading of the names of every parishioner who has died in the past year. Those gathered light a candle for each of them.
They also light four large candles in honor of all parents, children, friends and ancestors who have died regardless of the time frame.
The photo tribute remains up all month when Sr. Ginger said the Church calls Catholics to remember their brothers and sisters who have gone to their rest.
Printed with permission from the Catholic Sun, newspaper from the Diocese of Phoenix, Arizona