Privilege Blog

Día de los Muertos, Or, Saturday Morning at 8:54am

Today is both All Soul’s Day, in the Catholic calendar, and the second and final day of the Latin American Día de los Muertos. I’ve been following celebrations from the second holiday, Celia Catalino, a family photographer here in Northern California, reports on Instagram from Oaxaca, as does Elaine del Cerro Yao. Gorgeous and moving.

I used to find it gruesome; why would a culture want to put death front and center? But this year, after my mother’s death, I thought I more nearly understood. How lovely and warm to celebrate all together, not the loss itself, but those who have lived and moved on.

As it happens, a couple of weeks ago my family planted an oak with my mother’s ashes. It was a perfectly unplanned event, as in we all knew what day it would happen, what time, and where, and who would attend, but we had no order of service at all. As can happen, it was perfect. Someone spoke fondly, someone rang a prayer bowl, someone sobbed. We all put handfuls of ash into the ground, we held hands.

Then we went out to dinner.

My mother’s death was in no way a tragedy. She was 86, she had advanced Alzheimer’s. As she lay in her bed those last few days she seemed not to feel pain, nor to struggle, she was surrounded by her children to the end. I used to think that that would be that, someone dies, you feel sad, day by day you feel better. Euclidean. In fact I find the process to be far more fractal, if I can ride a conceit far past its resting place, also not to be hurried.

We didn’t wait 7 months to finish putting Mom to rest on purpose, it was an accident of people’s schedules bumping up against the demands of California planting times. But in the end I felt an unexpected peace after our delayed ceremony. As though Mom had found her place, or at least my love for her had finally found its resting place in me.

I fancifully imagine Mom at a gathering of oaks, that I can hear the voice of her best self along whispering along their roots. I fully acknowledge that this is a fairy tale, and also that we probably need those tales, also prayer bowls and parades of children in petticoats and their painted faces.

Have a wonderful weekend.

26 Responses

    1. @Laura, Thank you, and that’s so interesting! I remember the marigolds vividly from my trip to India in the 1980s. I had no idea the tradition began in Central America.

  1. I don’t know if you entirely lose a core sadness that just lives there forever. My mother died in her bed, in her sleep, in her beloved home she’d lived in for fifty years. It was, in a way, the “perfect” death. What I do mourn is how history is passing her by now. She adored my children, and she’s not here to cheer them on in their lives. And I don’t mourn that for them, because they have plenty of cheerleaders in their lives. I do mourn it for her because they meant so much to her. She loved Christmas and with each Christmas that passes I mourn that she’s not here to enjoy it. I guess that I’m trying to say is that she was a simple woman who enjoyed simple things, and that joy she brought to the table was like a light to all of us. So if one can characterize sadness as a type of light, the room just isn’t as bright. There’s one candle that is not lit.

    1. @Claire, You’ve perfectly described a feeling that I have about my mother’s death (just over one year ago). I remember starting to cry when I saw my brother’s two children participating in the service. The thought that for her they, and her other grandchildren and great-grandchildren, were frozen t their current ages and she would no longer be there to see them grow. And the general thought that the world is moving on without her. Like you, I have nothing to complain about. She was 92 and had been relatively healthy physically and completely sharp mentally until the last few months.

      Lisa, as always your writing is beautiful and thought-provoking.

    2. @Claire, “There’s one candle that is not lit.” Thank you.

      In many ways my mother’s candle, as they say, was put out long ago by Alzheimer’s. But I can imagine what it must be like to have lost a mother who was there to the end. xoxoxox.

  2. As always, Dear One, you’ve nudged my soul. I too put my mother’s ashes in a natural place, where I’d seen burrowing owls and foxes and deer. And I chose it for “the best of her”, the woman who was always so drawn to the four legged ones, the birds and the ocean. But I think I might of left “the best of me” there also because in my life after that, the idea of Mom still continued to enrage me. A thousand times I’d struggle to forgive her and a thousand time I’d fail. But I’ll continue to work on that, maybe through a lifetime. Because your blog reminded me how nature is SO very “the best of us” and I know our mothers remain and thrive there always.

    1. @Bronwyn, I’m so sorry your mother didn’t release you from rage before she died. My mother’s Alzheimer’s took her to a pure self – I was never enraged by her but was certainly distant until I could care for her as though she was my little child. Mom’s disease did take her to nature, her death was just one more step. I hope peace comes to you.

  3. So much wisdom in planting that oak tree. Brava!
    We walked yesterday along a wooded lakeside path that we’d walked along many times with my mother (gone six years now, coming up on seven). . . .
    My experience is that the loss confronts us (or vice versa?) in many ways over time, ebbing and flowing. . . and it often collects or recalls other losses along the way. . .

    1. @Frances,
      The latter part resonates with me very much,Frances
      And,planting an oak is such a wonderful celebration of your mother’s life and spirit Lisa! I like it indeed…

    2. @Frances, Thank you. Of course answering these comments is bringing tears to my eyes, as you say, it ebbs and flows. I hadn’t thought that it collects other losses but I do believe you are right. I remember you walked with you mother xoxox. And Dottoressa, <3.

  4. Lisa,
    Once more your poignant writing captures both the ordinary and exceptional aspects of your mother’s death. Death may be one of the final mystery’s of our lives cloaked in the Oak trees we are all angels. Thank-you,


  5. I’m so curious if this is the burial your mother chose? It’s a lovely image. As others have said, the feelings come and go….I miss my mother most at times when my daughter or grandchildren have something special that I know she’d have absolutely loved. At yet, at other occasions I remember her, and feel a certain freedom that I don’t have to worry about her presence – does that make any sense? I’m glad your mom’s final resting place is behind you though, and not still in flux.

    1. @KSL, Mom only wanted a grave marker of some sort. She had used to say, decades back, that she wanted to be interred in her family plot on a hill in Massachusetts, but we were sure she’d rather be here where we were near and I was sure I wanted her nearby, myself. The tree idea evolved. We were very lucky to find a place where it was possible and accessible to everyone.

  6. Rituals, whether simple or ornate, planned in advance or more serendipitous, have great healing power. I am glad you felt peace and the whispering of roots and wings ♥️

  7. How perfect. Love the oak tree planting and family gathering to celebrate your Mother. A life well lived, followed by illness and now she rests in peace. Beautifully orchestrated by a loving and devoted family. This makes me smile.

  8. Thank you for sharing the two Instagram sites. I love Mexico and especially enjoy seeing Dia de Los Muertos celebrations. I made an ofrenda for our son, who passed away last year on November 1. It was a very therapeutic project for me.

    1. @Nancy, I am so sorry your son is gone. And I am glad the images were what you wanted. I had made an “ofrenda” of sorts for my mother, not even knowing that’s what I was doing. It seems so natural, to collect a person’s ephemera and celebrate them.

  9. I, too, lost my mother earlier this year (New Year’s Eve) after a battle with dementia and other ailments. While the memorial service was closer to her death, we will be interring her on what would have been her 82nd birthday next Sunday. Somehow, the delay has led a contradictory softening and increasing of the grief at her absence in my life. Her resting place will be on a hill, overlooking the valley our home town is in, which is fitting since she will both be looking over my father and seeing the countryside she loved living in. It will also comfort my father, who can look up at the hill and know she’s not that far away.

    1. @Lazygal, This is very beautiful. I hope your father is comforted by her overlook. I know what you mean about grief both softening and increasing. It’s like your body allows you to feel what you’re ready for, when the death was expected and still sad.

  10. My mother died just three days ago. It was cancer, and therefore not unexpected, though a lot sooner than we all had thought.
    Your words are helpful, thank you. (I have been following your blog for a long time)

    1. @Mary, I am so sorry your mom is gone. Her death is so recent for you now. I hope you have close family, and friends, to stay close. I hope grief treats you with kindness.

      And there is no greater privilege than to be of use to someone in need. <3

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