A Feast to Die ForMy intro­duc­tion to Dia de Los Muer­tos came at a fes­ti­val in Den­ver years ago. I was amazed at the elab­o­rate altars draped with marigolds and scar­let cock’s comb, the tables over­flow­ing with turkey mole, stacks of tor­tillas, and huge mounds of pan de muer­tos, the sweet, egg-​rich Day of the Dead bread that’s sprin­kled with sugar and dec­o­rated with strips of dough to look like twisted bones.

And the sugar skulls! Called calav­eras, they came in all col­ors and sizes, some made with choco­late or sprin­kled with bits of hard candy, oth­ers cov­ered in sesame seed with wal­nuts for teeth. There was can­died pump­kin and skull pops on a stick and even tiny sugar coffins to be offered to the return­ing spir­its of chil­dren. Whe you pulled a string, a grin­ning skele­ton popped up. How I would’ve loved that when I was a kid!

I also learned about the Mex­i­can town of Patzcuaro that has become famous for its Day of the Dead cel­e­bra­tions. There the fam­i­lies keep vigil at the ceme­tery through the night, with mari­achis strolling among the graves to play the favorite songs of the deceased. Food and drink are set out for the spir­its, then later con­sumed by the liv­ing or taken as an offer­ing to church.

Far from being mor­bid, Dia de los Muer­tos is both unabashedly fes­tive and gen­uinely reflec­tive, a mys­ti­cal time to inte­grate the twin worlds of the liv­ing and the dead. Com­pared to such a play­ful, exu­ber­ant fes­ti­val, the atti­tude toward death in the US all too often seems dry, depress­ing, lugubri­ous. We shun Death and hope some­how that Death, if unac­knowl­edged, will per­haps over­look us.

A friend who has spent years liv­ing in Japan (where she cel­e­brated Obon, the Japan­ese hol­i­day for wel­com­ing back departed spir­its) and in San Miguel de Allende, Mex­ico, told me recently, “I’m not that keen on the way death is viewed here in the US. In Japan, it is okay to die, and in Mex­ico it seems per­mis­si­ble also. In the US, it just does not appear to be allowed.”

I think she has a point.

I’m not eager to die, but I try to regard death as a nat­ural part of the cycle of life, a mys­tery I’m in no hurry to unravel, but whose pres­ence makes life a lit­tle sweeter and small plea­sures more deeply enjoyed.

In the mean­time, a bak­ery in San Luis Obispo is sell­ing sugar skulls, and I’m going there this after­noon to buy some. A loaf of pan de muer­tos, too, if they have any.

I may not be ready to embrace Death just yet, but some­times I want to nib­ble around the edges.

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