Op/Ed

Living with dying: We learn to embrace the ‘Day of the Dead’

The Living with Dying Partnership is exploring cultural rituals and practices around death and dying. Neighbor to neighbor, companioning those at the end of life is an art of living that can be embraced instead of feared. Day of the Dead, or Dia de Muertos, is a Mexican holiday that we would like to celebrate here in Addison County annually. So we went to the Open Door Clinic to learn more from Alicia Rodriguez.
Alicia moved here from northern Mexico 16 years ago after she and her husband came to visit his father, who worked on a farm in Salisbury. The owner of the farm offered a job to his worker’s son and they have created a life here in Addison County. Alicia works two days a week on the farm, cares for her family and volunteers at the Open Door Clinic as a translator and as a board member. She is a delight to talk with, animated and friendly, with such a warm and captivating spirit.
I asked Alicia about the Day of the Dead event and her spirited response gave me the feeling that this is a beloved holiday. Historically, she related how it was a celebration that was created by the intermingling of ancient Aztec rituals (which would last for a whole month) and the conquering Spanish Catholic influence. It is very family-oriented and inclusive of all faiths, ages and regions of Mexico.
Families will create an altar or “ofrenda” in memory of a loved one who has died. This altar displays pictures and other mementos, including the loved one’s favorite foods. Water is included — to make sure the loved one’s thirst is quenched — and salt — for purifying the body. Special incense is used; the smoke “fills the space between earth and heaven as a guide to God.” Favorite foods of the loved one are shared on the altar and a vibrant orange flower cempasuchil, or “flower of 400 petals,” represents earth.
A celebration is held at the cemetery — typically where the deceased was raised — with feasts, dancing and prayer. The Rosary is often recited and stories — both good and bad — are shared about the loved one. Alicia emphasized that this is an honest remembering, with nothing left unsaid. It is a public ceremony full of fun rather than sadness. It is felt that it is a way to assist the loved one on their spiritual journey.
The Living with Dying Partnership hosted a showing of “Coco,” the Disney movie that captures this celebration and its meaning. Afterwards, the moviegoers decorated skull cookies. Margaret Olson, Bereavement Care Provider at End of Life Services, attended and noted “I loved watching the families decorate cookies together after the film; it was inspiring. I think it would be very interesting to have a short film discussion afterward, to hear the thoughts and experience of the children and their questions.”
Maureen Conrad, Director of Development at Addison County Home Health & Hospice, added, “It was so wonderful to finally see the movie ‘Coco.’ I can now understand the cultural references I have been hearing about for some time now. It was great to work with the other members of the Living with Dying Partnership to present this event, and we appreciate the Marquis Theater donating their space so families could decorate cookies after the movie.”
Next November the Living with Dying Partnership plans to provide this event again, as well as other celebrations during this Day of the Dead holiday to honor death and dying.
This column is presented by the Living with Dying Partnership – an alliance between End of Life Services (formerly Hospice Volunteer Services and ARCH), Addison County Home Health & Hospice and UVM Health Network Porter Medical Center. The mission of this partnership is to create a framework for end-of-life care organizations to collaborate on our common goal of providing education about dying, death and options for care. For more information on this partnership, please call End of Life Services at 388-4111.

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