Retreat explores 'Day of the Dead' tradition

IPSWICH -- When Sister Barbara Gutierrez, SNDdeN, was growing up in Mexico, the celebration of "Dia de los Muertos," the Day of the Dead, was observed mainly by older people. But in recent years, it has become more popular among young Mexicans claiming their roots, and its popularity has grown in the U.S. to the point that decorations can be found in many stores.

To educate people about the Catholic aspects of the Day of the Dead, Sister Barbara conducted an annual retreat on Oct. 23 at the Notre Dame Spirituality Center. During their time together, she talked about the historical and cultural roots of the holiday and the Catholic theology behind it.

While following coronavirus protocols, Sister Barbara was able to hold the daylong retreat in person in 2020 and again this month. Last year, she said, the retreat became "very emotional," and many people were tearful as they shared their reflections and experiences with death and mourning. She thought it brought healing to some of them.

"They are surprised how Catholic and how meaningful (the holiday) is," she said in an Oct. 25 interview.

The Day of the Dead takes place on Nov. 1 and 2, which are All Saints Day and All Souls Day in the Church calendar. The holiday combines Aztec and European traditions into a unique celebration of life, death, and love.

Sister Barbara began by telling the retreatants about the history and mythology of the celebration's Mexican origins. The Aztecs had several similar celebrations throughout the year, one of which took place between Oct. 20 and Nov. 8. It involved honoring the dead and offering up the fruits of the harvest.

The Aztecs believed the land of the dead was ruled by the goddess Mictecacihuatl and her husband Mictlantecutli. People who died naturally were believed to go to Mictlan, the house of the dead, which had special sections for children, women who died giving birth, and warriors who died in battle, which was considered a natural death.

Sister Barbara said that when the Europeans arrived in Mexico, it was easy to intertwine Christianity with the local customs because the Aztecs had similar concepts of duality between life and death, good and evil, light and darkness.

"They managed that duality a lot, so it really makes sense (that) when the European clergy came, they didn't destroy the tradition, they adapted it," Sister Barbara said.

After explaining the history of the Day of the Dead, Sister Barbara talked about how it is celebrated now.

"What happens today is we honor the lives of our loved ones who have gone before us," she told The Pilot.

She said she wishes people would learn and understand more about the holiday. For instance, some people dress up as La Catrina, a female skeleton, without knowing her origin: she was depicted in a painting by artist Jose Guadalupe Posada in 1910.

During the retreat, Sister Barbara talked about the elements of an "ofrenda," a traditional altar set up for the Day of the Dead. She invited retreatants to bring pictures of their deceased loved ones and place them on the altar they made together.

Some altars have multiple levels, with a crucifix at the top followed by saints to whom the deceased had a particular devotion. Other traditional elements are flowers, especially Mexican marigolds called cempazuchitl; candles to symbolize the light of Christ; holy water to symbolize baptism; and salt as a symbol of preservation and a reminder to be "the salt of the earth." Sugar skulls, or calaveras, are often decorated with the names of people living in the house.

In the past, Sister Barbara said, it was more common for families to pray the rosary together before the altar on Nov. 1 and 2.

To explore the Catholic identity and theology of the celebration, Sister Barbara examined Scripture passages about the promise of eternal life. Belief in the resurrection of the body and everlasting life is professed in the Nicene Creed and the Apostles Creed.

Speaking to The Pilot, she said the celebration reminds them "that death does not have the last word."

"The beautiful thing is that our loved ones are not only living eternal life, but they are free, and they are healed, and they are at peace," Sister Barbara said.

At the end of the retreat, they had a closing ritual: Sister Barbara set out a bowl of ice and a bowl of warm water, and each retreatant had the opportunity to place an ice cube in the water and watch it melt, symbolizing their letting go of their deceased loved ones.

Sister Barbara said she thought it was better to hold the retreat in October rather than November, as they did last year. Holding it earlier gave retreatants time to prepare if they wanted to set up an altar in their home or observe the Day of the Dead in their own way.

"It's deeply personal and prayerful," she said.