Day of the Dead

By Edith,
thinking of the dead north of Boston

Tomorrow is Dia dos Mortos in Brazil. When I was an exchange student in southern Brazil in 1970, the family drove to the cemetery on November second (which happens to be my birthday) and cleaned up the graves of relatives. It was somber, but many other families were there, too.

From the Museo de Arte Popular, Mexico City.

Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos in Mexico, is a much bigger deal and can encompass three days: yesterday (Halloween), today, and tomorrow. According to wikipedia, this is the “Christian triduum of Hallowmas: All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.” There is whimsical art work featuring skeletons. Families picnic and drink in the cemeteries. People dress up as skeletons. Shrines to the recently departed are created.

From a recent party in Ajijico, Jalisco, Mexico. Photograph by Allan MacGregor.

My dear friend and fellow Scorpio Sarah Hage, whose birthday is today (happy birthday, Sarah!) is a former technical writer who now creates art full time. Some of her favorite papier mâché sculptures are associated with Day of the Dead. sarah_hage_5_31_smAs she writes on her blog,

As a kid, I loved Halloween, which was the day before my birthday, doubling the fun. When I learned about the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico, I was fascinated and wanted to participate. It seemed like a much happier and less creepy celebration of the holiday. As an adult, I traveled to Mexico several times and collected Day of the Dead art, my favorite being a green papier-mâché skull or Calavera, which I still have. As an artist I was drawn to the bright colors that, in themselves, mocked death, and the elaborate patterns that evoked the tangled jungles and forests where the monarch butterflies migrated each fall like souls returning to earth.

SarahLiveFreeskull SarahPushDaisiesSkullWhen I migrated from New England to Southern California, I took to papier-mâché like a butterfly to marigolds. The climate made it not only possible, but imperative for a sculptor with no kiln other than the sun. I was wowed by what traditional Mexican artists could do with the medium and, instead of joining their ranks, have made the art my own. My series of Dead Heads infuses the traditional with themes that lend meaning and joy to me. Life is short; make art!Sarah4elements_masks_sm-e1360369805350

Sarah also created four masks that:

…capture the darker aspect of the tradition where ancient meets modern, life courts death, and earthly and spiritual worlds collide.



In my short crime story, “The Stonecutter” (Fish Nets, Wildside Press 2013), I include a short scene toward the end from a cemetery in a town north of Boston where many Portuguese and Azorean immigrants live.

FISHNETS_hi-resCOVERI walked slowly through the cemetery late Saturday morning. Families sat in the cold on picnic cloths. A slender woman in black laid a mass of flowers on a grave then raised a glass of red wine to the headstone. Children played hide and seek. The sad All Soul’s Day festivities seemed to include almost the entire Portuguese community.

Shortly after this scene, the narrator Eleanor learns news that surprises and horrifies her, and then hears sirens approach.

At this time of year in the northern hemisphere, sunshine vanishes. Darkness prevails. A writer’s thoughts turn to death. When a bitter wind blows and the sun sets at four PM, we hunker down indoors and write scenes of inner turmoil, revenge, and death.

Here’s my own shrine in my home office: atop a bookshelf one of Sarah’s papier mâché angels watches over IMG_2935pictures of my sons (blessedly very much alive) from their high school days next to the ashes of their two Maxwell grandparents. I have a bit of the Day of the Dead with me every day and it’s quite comforting.

Do whimsical skulls make you happy? Do you imagine new death hiding behind century-old gravestones or in the dark shadows of late fall?

12 Thoughts

  1. Very interesting, Edith. It’s fun to learn how other cultures celebrate or mark certain events and Day of the Dead has certainly been used as a backdrop in many TV shows. But you made it so nicely personal and I love Sarah’s artwork – Happy Birthday, Sarah.

    1. Yes. You should check out Sarah’s gallery. She’s amazing. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting her in North Hollywood inJanuary and sitting by her pool writing while she sculpts and sands papier mache in the patio.

  2. Maybe a bit contrary-wise, but I think the masks are absolutely incredible. It’s rare to see work related to the holiday that takes the basic symbolism and reinterprets it in a whole new and beautiful fashion!

  3. Chiming in late to say my story, “Bread Baby” in Best New England Crime Stories 2014: Stone Cold (launching Saturday) combines a cartel of powerful Manhattan executive assistants with tantawawa, human images made by the Indians of the Peruvian Andes honoring their ancestors on the Day of the Dead.

Comments are closed.