The Dead Have their Day

Originally published in the 2013 Summer edition of Humanitie magazine.

Now that sex in all its infinite variety is widely discussed throughout the western world, death is the last great taboo subject. It’s not quite such a dirty word in Latin America where the Dia de los Muertos is a festival of remembrance with elaborate, macabre, but joyous celebrations that is celebrated annually. The most famous version of the Day of the Dead happens in Mexico where it’s a major tourist attraction.

The sun is still warm in Mexico in late October, so it’s easy to understand why people there go to cemeteries and have picnics by the graveside of their dear departed. While they’re there, they clean and decorate the grave with ‘ofrendas’ (offerings) and special flowers, particularly marigolds that are believed to be popular with the souls of the dead.

The ‘ofrendas’ are chosen according to the recipient, so toys and sweeties are left for dead children, while food and strong drink are supplied for adults. Some of the most popular food items are ‘Cavaleras de azucar’ or sugar skulls, but poetry and art are also important. As you might expect images of skeletons and skulls are much in evidence, and people also write or commission humorous epitaphs for their dead that often mock the living.

The idea of death as the great leveller is hardly unknown in the western world too and despite its catholic and pagan roots. The Dia de los Muertos has a great deal in common with the humanist attitude to death, which is that a funeral is a chance to celebrate a life well lived, which is why earlier this year, it occurred to me that the HSS might create a Scottish version a kind of ‘Day o’ the Deid’.

Well it didn’t take a lot of research before I realised that I wasn’t the first person to come up with this idea. The first Day of the Dead in the UK was held in London in 2011. The emphasis was on food and fun with skeleton dancers, storytelling, sugar skull decorating classes and free burritos, all washed down with mucho tequila. Since then the event has grown in size and importance and it’s inspired others elsewhere.

The Scottish organisation Final Fling has a similar programme with the aim according to Final Fling founder and director Barbara Chalmers: to replace the dark, scary, ghoul fest that we know as Hallowe’en, with a bright, colourful, celebratory fiesta that remembers and honours our dead, workshops, events, theatrical premiers and a parade down the length of Buchanan Street.

Final Fling wants to make Scotland more open about death, so people feel better equipped to support each other through the difficult times.

The Children’s Hospice Association Scotland, Creative Scotland, and Good Life Good Death Good Grief are all working with Final Fling to realise their plans, and we in HSS should support them too.

Photo courtesy: Kathy, Creative Commons.

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