This time of year in my hometown of San Antonio, sugar skulls are having their annual moment. Panaderías sell freshly baked pan dulce decorated with festive, smiling bones and bright flowers. For many, the decorations blend seamlessly into the seasonal Halloween decorations of ghosties and ghoulies. For myself and many other Latinos, the sugar skulls have greater significance.
Día de Todos los Santos (November 1) and Día de los Muertos (November 2), is a multi-day holiday rooted in Mexican culture. It is a time dedicated to remembrance and joyful celebration of the loved ones we have lost.
Around this time of year, many Hispanic families set up ofrendas, or altars in our homes that are soon overflowing with candles, orange and yellow marigolds, pictures of loved ones who have passed in beautifully painted Nicho boxes, and other symbols of remembrance. We also make sure to include things our loved ones enjoyed, like a bottle of Big Red or even a cold beer.
We also place tasty bread baked for the occasion (Pan de Muertos) on the ofrendas, and—of course—candy sugar skulls, or calaveras!
For my family, Día de los Muertos is a celebration! The family gathers at my abuelo’s gravesite and spends time cleaning it up, adorning it with new flowers, and stringing lights.
We bring out food, drinks, and music. The kids run around and play. Sometimes, there are other families celebrating so there is a party atmosphere in the cemetery. At night, we sit around and share memories and stories about my grandfather—the special times and the impact he had on our lives.
It’s a time to be united as a family. Remembering those we’ve lost bring us closer and helps ease the pain of their passing and keep their spirit in our hearts.
With this celebration comes a cultural tradition that my siblings, cousins, and I embody—it’s important always to remember those who have gone before us. In our family, my generation is now tasked with the responsibility of keeping the memories of our loved ones alive.
Transcending the Barrier Between Life and Death
Día de los Muertos is a holiday for honoring and celebrating the lives of those loved ones who have passed away. It’s a reminder that death is a natural part of life and, while the grief of losing family and friends can be devastating, coming together to remember them can bring a great sense of comfort and healing.
Día de los Muertos is also a time when the space between the living and the dead seems more accessible, more part of our lives. It becomes acceptable to talk about that which is often shied away from in conversation.
It’s a reminder that death does not need to be a taboo topic.
Expressing End-of-Life Wishes and Requests
Not being comfortable talking about death is one of the most common reasons why final wishes and requests go unfulfilled. Many of us simply don’t know how to communicate what we want or are too uncomfortable with the topic to bring it up at all. Consider the following statistics:
- Just 13% of adults say they’ve let a close friend or family member know where they want to be when they die (rising to only 15% among seniors).
- Only 8% of people have put in place medical and/or emotional support for the end of their lives (dropping to 6% among seniors).
- Only 50% of survey respondents reported telling anybody whether they would like to be buried or cremated and only 37% had made a will.
Talking about what you want to be done with your worldly affairs can be key to minimizing family conflict and stress after you pass. Planning your estate now can help ensure a peaceful transition of your wealth and property after you pass—which means your loved ones won’t need to worry about dispensing material possessions while they’re going through the grieving process.
Día de los Muertos honors the significance of death in our lives, but above all, the holiday is about the love we share for la familia who are no longer with us.
We can also take steps to honor those who will still be here after we are gone. Taking the time now to establish a will, plan your estate, and consider obtaining a life insurance policy will help ensure your loved ones aren’t left to deal with complicated logistics after your death. Instead, they can focus on their grief and, eventually, lovingly set up an ofrenda in your honor.
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