The San Francisco Day of the Dead Festival is an impressive affair. Fabulous music in processional, painted faces and costumes, extraordinary altars honoring those who have passed with flowers, artwork, photos, candles, burning sage and more. All the senses are present, palpable and heightened in a ritual artistic blend that attracts the spirits and brings solace to those of us left behind. Joyful celebration outranks solemn grief, but both are present in the kind of mixture that signals the soul to pay attention— something important is happening here.
One of the most moving things for me was the lines strung with cards hanging by clothespins. These were the little notes of remembrance written on the spot, addressed to the dearly departed. I wrote eight myself— it has been a hard year, from the passing of my Mom and Sasaki Roshi, my Zen teacher of 40 years, to my young postcard Spanish friend Vero stricken down by cancer at 19 years old to Cyril, the lovely man at the Jewish Home who liked to sing with me at the piano and beyond.
I couldn’t help but be struck—as I imagine others were as well— how many people stopped to write cards, sending their little postcards to the heavens. We all know that Death visits us all, but to see in palpable form how just about everyone in that crowded little park had lost someone they cared for was moving. We do not grieve alone, loss is as everyday as sunrise and sunset. If we ever stopped all our judgment of each other, our apathy towards each other, our antipathy and sometimes downright hatred of each other, if we began to see each other as fellow sufferers who have loved and lost, well, wouldn’t that change our perspective?
And yet we soldier on as if loss were an inconvenient interruption to our plans, as if we can afford to look away from it onto the hyper-playground of our screens. We’ll dress up as needed for the memorial service, but hope we’ll get back in time to see our favorite show. To live with loss as a perpetual presence is, of course, difficult and if not done well, can sink down to just an ongoing sadness.
But the spirit of the Festival is the mixture, the gratitude to have known those who have passed through, the awareness of our fragility and that of the people we are singing with under the tree, the renewal of vows to live fully and deeper into each moment. All of this helps us come closer to building a new relationship with the invisible forms of the departed and feel their presence amongst us. And that’s when soul stands up and claps its hands and life grows a richer texture and color and fragrance.
Well, at least that’s what it felt like to me, singing with friends by candlelight under a tree with the distant boom of drums and the pungent aroma of sage (or was that something else?). If it’s true— and I believe it is— that those in the other world are kept alive through the act of remembrance by those in this world, well, wasn’t that quite a party they were having too? Everyone reading their postcards and sharing it with each other and singing the songs they recognized and dancing the dances they remembered.
I’d like to think so. How about you?