I Believe in Honoring My Ancestors
In Spanish, the word for ancestors is antepasados: ante meaning before, pasado meaning past. Thus, ancestors are those who came before those who lived in the past. I believe in remembering those who came before: the parents before my parents, and the parents before them. Some are buried in sanctified ground, others in anonymous graves. Some have left no physical trace; they exist only in our memories.
I grew up visiting cemeteries, walking up and down rows of headstones, comparing names and dates and statuary. On November 1st and 2nd, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, my family went to the cemetery. We did not go to mourn the deceased; I experienced the cemetery not as a macabre crumbling graveyard of full moons and midnight, but as a sunny place, festively decorated, filled with love and remembrance.
We prayed for our loved ones, left offerings. We brought flowers, lovingly arranged, accented with greens, finished with ribbon. On these Days of the Dead, flowers abounded: real and faux, bouquets placed in blue foiled coffee cans weighted with rocks, floral sprays balanced on the thin green legs of an easel. The cemetery was resplendent with offerings: toys on the graves of children, cigars on the grave of someone’s father, balloons for a favorite aunt. Small pleasures they enjoyed in life.
My sister and I brought along our Halloween candy. While our parents watered the flowers and tended the gravesite, we chose something from our sugary loot to leave our grandmother. We sifted through the plastic pumpkins, ruling out the ordinary hard candy as well as our best chocolates, which would only melt in the afternoon sun; besides, she did do not like chocolate, did she? We asked our Mom. In this way we came to know our grandmother. We settled on peanut butter chews wrapped in black and orange wax paper, and place them on the headstone.
Long ago, people believed the spirits of their loved ones visited the earth on the Day of the Dead, and offered them sustenance for the journey home. They put out water, food, salt. Once a year the dead could delight in feasting, smoking, drinking—the business of their former lives. I believe these offerings are more for us than for the dead. They remind us of both the needs of living (water) and the joys (chocolate). The flowers blooming and wilting, remind us that we are dying as we are living.
This year I cannot make it to the cemetery. Instead I will build an altar, complete with a cross, old photos, and marigolds. I will light a candle for those whose names I know and for those nameless forebears who came before the written record. I honor my ancestors by remembering. I honor them by celebrating life.
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