Keeping Corpses in Our Home, and Mexican Death Culture
The best thing about travel is learning about the cultures in different countries. Many places in the world hold different beliefs and feelings around death. Mexico is known for their acceptance and even for embracing it. The iconic beautiful woman with skull face paint and brightly colored clothes, is an image which comes to mind when someone mentions Mexico. We have all heard of Day of the Dead, also celebrated by Christians as All Souls Day.
Day of the Dead happens November 2nd. There is a misconception in western culture that the holiday is evil or devil worship. For others it is just a big party with parades, parties and drinking. Day of the Dead is actually a holiday for mourning, remembering, celebrating and grieving those whom we have lost. A valuable national holiday set aside for families to honor their loved ones who have passed. In Mexico, death is a natural part of life. In Canada, we agree that this is true, but we don't necessarily want to face it and it doesn't feel normal to us.
Normalization of death is a concept which I try to instil and encourage in the lives of the people around me. As a funeral director, I am in love this festival and the significant impact it has on the communities which celebrate it. Death is a natural process which we have distanced ourselves from. It is no different from being born. Our feelings about babies and giving birth, are joy, happiness, and excitement. With death, we have the opposite feelings of grief and sadness. We avoid anything to do with death, because we generally don't like feeling uncomfortable. We don't like pain or having negative emotions, yet we are aware that these emotions are just as important as positive ones. Many people feel uneasy talking to someone who is grieving. We don't even like to read articles about death, or what happens when someone dies. Day of the Dead is amazing because it encourages people to grieve and remember long after the initial sting. Its effect is to embrace grief rather than hide from it.
Most Mexican people use funeral homes. Their funerals are not much different from ours, but in Mexico, death is normalized, talked about and even celebrated. It is taught in elementary schools, similar to the way we teach about life and birth. Poetry and literature about death are a big part of the curriculum. Grieving is socially acceptable. It is embraced as a natural transition the way we recognize birth, yet in Canada, many families question whether we should even bring our children to the funerals of their family members. This disassociation perpetuates confusion of how to handle death when our children grow up.
In western culture, we are so removed form the entire process. It never used to be this way. 60 years ago my grandmother prepared her mothers body for the funeral. She was not a funeral director; she was a homemaker. My grandparents didn't have much money, and so she did what she needed do, to prepare for the funeral. My grandma washed her moms body, dressed her and kept her on ice. They couldn't afford to use a funeral home. When I spoke to my grandma about her feelings regarding the process, she recounted that it was a really emotional, but she was glad she had the opportunity. Keeping our deceased family member in our house to wash, dress and care for them is actually a totally natural thing to do. If I was to keep my family members body in my living room today, most people would say it would be creepy.
The reason people started using the services of a funeral home to care for their loved ones remains, and allow families the time to grieve and embrace the emotions of a loss of a loved one without having to perform the less pleasant aspects of preparing for a funeral. Preparing a body for burial at the time of death is way beyond what we believe we can handle. In our culture today, all we have left are our feelings. We struggle expressing them, because it is not socially acceptable to talk about death. It makes people uncomfortable and it us not commonplace. If death is considered too taboo to talk about until it happens, how do we prepare ourselves before it happens in our lives and how can we support our family and friends who are grieving?
We are expected to get over our grief in a certain amount of time. Paid time off is 2 or 3 days depending on which province you live in. In Canada there are no designated holidays of remembrance unless you are a veteran. Without normalization of this natural process, grieving takes so much longer and is far more difficult. Social awkwardness around death occurs all the time, yet people die every day. We act like we will live forever, knowing that the clock is ticking.
When someone we love dies, our uncomfortable emotions are heightened. We don't talk about these emotions, but we need to. Death is too taboo. We will all face death in our lives in many forms and we need to allow time and space for it. National recognition is a great way to honor and allow grief for those who have gone before us. Perhaps we would even begin to embrace it as a natural part of life, rather than something to be afraid of.
Canada is an amazing country which embraces cultures from all over the world. Even though Halloween is fun, its kind of useless. I like the idea of dedicating a day to celebrating the lives and mourning the loss of our loved ones. Acknowledging Day of the Dead would serve us better psychologically than Halloween. Luckily we don't have to choose, because they're not on the same day! Maybe this year you should consider taking those extra few days off work to celebrate Halloween with the friends who are living; and Day of the Dead honor yourself by allowing time for grief for those who have passed.