Death - done properly.

This is a little story about death.

But don’t be alarmed, gentle reader. It’s about death as seen through a lens of a respectful and colourfully poignant celebration. It’s about a ritual of fond and exuberant remembrance.

It’s about death – done properly.  

Growing up in a middle class, Protestant, God fearing home, (although for some time there was some confusion as to whether the preferred flavour was Methodist or Dutch Reformed), death was something that was not spoken of - especially not in front of children. It was referred to euphemistically, only happened to really old people and was a bloody mystery to a curious 7-year old.

I have vague recollections of my grandfather ‘passing away’, so many years ago.  It involved a long drive to my grandparent’s farm in the middle of nowhere (Ingogo, KwaZulu Natal), with no electricity and the abomination that struck fear and loathing into the heart of a city reared child and mostly likely caused bouts of constipation too – the long drop, a shed-like pit toilet out at the end of the garden.

Visits to the farm were normally happy affairs where you’d have at least 9 instant playmates in the form of your cousins that you hadn’t seen since the previous Christmas. Days were long and carefree with acres to explore. And when the midday heat proved too much for even the most intrepid explorers, a huge wraparound stone porch that was shaded by Catawba grapes - hanging fat, sweet, black and low - provided some respite. My grandfather would fold his huge frame into an ancient rocking chair and smoke his pipe on said porch, while we ran wild, chasing each other, shrieking and laughing and invariably bumping into his chair.  A slightly dazed child would look up into his kind, wizened and slightly bewildered face, and he’d ask: “whose child are you?”

Even though our grandparents were very poor, my mom and dad, her 6 sisters and their husbands always ensured that Christmas was a grand affair and the enormous farmhouse kitchen table groaned under the weight of every dish imaginable as all the aunties would try to outdo each other.  Bless them. You would feast for days and fall into bed exhausted, but not before washing yourself in the enamel tub and hand painted jug that stood next to the bed.

Then, there was the abject horror of needing the toilet in the middle of the night, a mission that involved scrabbling for matches on the nightstand, lighting a tallow candle in an enamel candle holder and usually begging an older sibling or your mom to accompany you to the pit of despair. You’d make your way through the house, outside past the grotesque forms of cacti looming over you like monsters in the moonlight until you reached the outhouse.  You would smell it before you saw it and would usually weigh up the merits of wetting the bed instead of having to go in and do your business. And while you were in, said older sibling with a rather vicious streak would start warning of monsters and tell you to be careful that nothing grabbed you from below.

Not for me is reading on the can – I’m in and out, with military timing.  Now you know why.

That time marked some sort of transition for me. The drive was long and stultifying. On arrival, the mood was sombre as was the clothing.  I don’t remember my mother ever being very demonstrative, but on arrival she collapsed theatrically into someone’s arms and sobbed. Adults spoke in hushed tones, tempers were frayed and more than one of us were clipped around the ears for being too loud, exuberant or boisterous.  Fed up with all of it, we escaped outside, well out of earshot, but more importantly, out of arms reach to discuss this very mysterious thing called ‘passing away’.

We decided that it was rubbish and to be avoided and set out to play.  I also remember a tongue lashing on the day of my granddad’s funeral because of my sartorial choice – oxblood patent leather shoes. I thought I was fancy. My mum thought it was horribly disrespectful and ‘racy’. The funeral service was long and dreadfully dull and mourners were all formally dressed in black in the merciless heat that is a South African summer. A foretaste of hell, I imagine. Then back to the farm for the burial. Except kids couldn’t go to the graveyard. It was a terrible anti-climax, although we were all secretly relieved that we wouldn’t have to interact with the minister. Afterall, no one does disapproval, fire and brimstone quite like an old Afrikaans NG Kerk dominee.  

My point is that white South African protestants circa 1959 – 1994 are shit at death.
We really don’t do it very well.
You know who does Death well?

The Mexicans.

Dia des Muertos (also referred to as Dia de los Muertos) is celebrated on 2 November each year.

The Day of the Dead.

And no, it isn’t the Mexican version of Halloween.
Its roots are more than 3,000 years old. Present day customs emerged and evolved from the month-long Aztec celebration that honoured the dead, presided over by the Aztec goddess of Death, Mictecacihuatl and which later merged with Catholic beliefs and traditions.

And this is how Mexicans acknowledge death as being part of life. Life and death are intertwined and cyclical. They grow up alongside it, welcome and find comfort in it. They pay homage to death with offerings, songs, respect and humour. Death is the ultimate neutralising force – everyone is equal in the end.

Preparations for the Dia des Muertos celebration takes weeks. It’s a really important part of Mexican culture and, contrary to popular belief, it’s not a time of sadness, but rather one of celebration. It’s a highly visual and visceral ceremony that provides a way to remember and celebrate the lives of family members and loved ones who are no longer with us.

People visit, clean and decorate the graves of their loved ones with ofrendas like orange marigolds, trinkets and candies. Often, a path of marigold petals is strewn from the grave to your home to help your loved ones find their way.
People dress up in elaborate costumes that feature orange Monarch butterflies, who are always associated with Dia des Muertos as they arrive from the North annually on November the 1st. These swarms of butterflies are associated symbolically with the souls of the dead.

Dressing as La Calavera Catrina (the elegant skull) with elaborate make up is also a popular costume for Dia des Muertos. Originally a skull in a hat, it began as a satirical portrayal of indigenous Mexicans, who the printmaker felt was ashamed of their origins - imitating the elaborate French style and wearing too much make up in order to make their skin appear whiter.  The famous Mexican Artist Diego Riviera took this image and ran with it, giving the iconic skull a body and an elaborate, elegant outfit – a la his wife, the celebrated artist Frieda Kahlo (who was the first Mexican artist to be represented in the Louvre). One could probably even get away with wearing oxblood patent leather shoes.

Brightly decorated sugar skulls, symbolising the sweetness of life, and toys, are left for children who have passed, although November 1st is to honour deceased children – Los Angelitos, while November 2nd is for honouring deceased adults.

Pan de los muertes  or ‘bread of the dead’ -  a sweet bread made with orange and anise is specially prepared, often decorated with skull and crossbones motifs and eaten along with the favourite foods of the deceased. And, of course, it wouldn’t be Mexico if there wasn’t Tequila in the mix, too.

Many families spend all night at the cemeteries, eating, drinking, talking, laughing, celebrating, playing cards – and often have mariachi bands providing the music for the festivities.

Our departed loved ones may no longer be physically with us, but the truth is that they still exist – as cherished memories in the bright, eternal present of our minds and hearts. And the tradition of cherishing those memories is not only a homage to them, but also a form of healing for us who remain to usher in the next generation.
It's about banishing fear with love. It’s about tempering sadness with joy. And most of all, it’s about acknowledging that yielding to the inevitable is not a surrender, but an embrace.
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