Day of the Dead

The Real Thing

The Day of the Dead is our primary religious observation of the year, but more to the point, our attention to ancestors and the reality of death energizes the altar and our life: in healing, protection, blessing and teaching.

The ceremony and celebration of Día de los Muertos, November 1 & 2 is a major cultural event, ageless and alive. And while some celebration occurs, it’s no party. Nor is it a superstition, but I imagine, since you’re reading this, you might know that already.

The Mexican genealogical origins of the ceremony are ancient and, in some way, connect to all indigenous populations of Mexico. Of course, there is ceremony on behalf of the dead all over the world.  

The traditional ceremony we’ve been privileged to participate with goes all night, starting November 1 in the evening and going past dawn the next morning, November 2. Our first experience…   


Many years ago, a friend told me they’d converted their shed to a Santuario, an altar, to celebrate Día de Los Muertos. I jumped at the opportunity but couldn’t imagine that shed turned holy.

When I opened that door the mass of gold and amber flowers took over my senses. Wall to wall, color and odors that tickle and entice both the dead and the living.

The presence of ancestors fills a room, takes over a space, especially when they are summoned and welcomed. The Jefes motioned us to wear headbands and get our “weapons,” our rattles, ready. The Smoke poured from three Sahumadores – Aztec burners – attended and applied by three female Dancers.

We hear the waist high, tree trunk Drum, the Huehuetl, a mark of our tradition, start up from the back of the room behind us, then we hear the Concha, the sea-shell-calling. The Chiefs, Jefes, welcome us and give us an idea of the agenda. There’d be two main events: communing with the Dead, of course, and performing the Ollin.

Volumes can be written and sung about the Ollin, another keystone in our traditions. Ollin is one of the 20 Day Names in the Aztec/Mayan Calendar. Simply translated it symbolizes the Gift of Movement. For us it is a quickening, an enlightening; a healing movement to be sure.

Good words and good songs comprise the beginning, along with the ceremonial lighting of 20 or so candles. The Jefes choose a man and a woman, from the participants to “lower the Ollin.”

It’s about 10:30 PM Nov 1 and while this part of the worship unfolds, another Dancer collects the names of the recent dead from each participant. He asks us to keep mostly to relatives and friends who had passed in the last five years or so. Of course, there’d be many exceptions to those rules.

Plentiful items of food, drink, tobacco, sweets and pictures of the Dead are all over the altar surrounded by more strong, breathing colors, multiples of skulls, in all shapes and sizes, and tall glass Mexican candles representing Deities and Saints. These are the offerings we bring to our dead, something we’ll share with them when the ceremony ends.

The couple chosen to lower the Ollin are on the floor seated by a square board centered in front of the altar. They are surrounded by baskets of gold, red and white flowers on short stems. Branches and leaves are bundled neatly next to the flowers. As a new round of Song and Smoke kicks up, the couple begins, flower by flower, lowering the Ollin!

A Dancer stands up holding the list of our departed. She begins reading one name of the deceased at a time, loud and clear. She reads one name per verse of song. Considering there were 40 people there, each offering a few names, we sang, rattled, drummed and prayed quite a few songs, until 2:30 AM.

It was hard to see the Ollin, since there were so many of us in various states of prayer, observation and participation. Some ask permission to photograph the Ollin, which is at times denied, at times permitted. I, for instance, won’t share a picture of an actual Day of the Dead Ollin, publicly. I already feel like I’ve said enough about a ceremony that many of my ancestors died to protect.

The Ollin is now lowered, our prayer for the communities of the living and dead is set.

During our break, we chat about the past and the future in the moment, aware that our ancestors are part of our conversation. While there were only 40 of us, with the presence of our dead, we felt like hundreds.

The Conch, Concha, summons us – four loud shell calls. As the People move about into their places, the Huehuetl, begins its version of Mother Earth’s Heartsong, and we all move into place. The Jefe asks a participant to lead us in the first song in the “raising of the Ollin,” the next half of the night.

For each song the leader sings a verse, the group repeats it, and we do it again. After the first song the Jefes choose another man and woman to “raise the Ollin.”

It’s now 3:30AM. Two cut broom sticks, three feet long, and a ball of thread are set in front of the couple. As the smoke, song, rattle and drum continue, the couple begins, very slowly, deliberately and in rhythm with the singing, tying the flowers, artfully, on the former plain broomsticks.

When the Jefes asked me to lead a song, I say, “El es Dios,”a traditional expression with a story of its own, and notice the time is 5:35AM. I got through my nervousness by belting out the first stanza, as if I knew what I was doing.

I sing, and while the group answers my stanza with the chorus, I catch my breath, clear my throat and sense my spiritual surroundings. You’d think by now I’d be used to it, but when one feels the presence of that world so clearly, it is always a most singular moment in one’s existence, even now, some 30 years later.

My song ends at 5:59AM. By that time over half the broomsticks are covered in orange, yellow and white flowers, and the next song moves it forward.

When every Flower is off the ground the Jefes begin the ending of the ceremony. Special songs are sung, acknowledgements of gratitude are made to sponsors, helpers, elders and chiefs, and then, the limpias begin.

As the song and smoke, drum and rattle move in their rhythm Elders, Jefes and others use those Flower Staffs to smudge, cleanse, refresh each one of us. Even the folks that couldn’t make the ceremony show up for this part.

After the limpias we eat, drink and enjoy the Offerings with our Dead. How else can they taste the sweetbread or the tobacco, except through their home in our blood? In my early years I’d go for a shot or two of Tequila to wake up. Later, health and gravity had me seeking protein and fruit to share with our ancestors. Perspectives dance on the Day of the Dead.

We believe that any mental, spiritual attention any of us give to our Ancestors is crucial, all the time, but nowadays, even more so. We thank you for any thoughts, deeds or inspirations you may experience, which we hope you’ll share. Just click below…


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