But don't think of accepting death as morbid and depressing. The Mexican (and now Mexican-American) holiday of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) isn't. During this celebration with Aztec ritual roots, which Catholic Spaniards moved to coincide with their All Saints' Day (November 1) and All Souls' Day (November 2), people not only accept death but invite the dead into their homes. They clean and decorate cemeteries and build altars containing flowers, incense, candles, photos, candies and sweet breads, skulls made from sugar, papier-mâché smiling and dancing skeletons and possessions loved by the deceased, even tequila and cigars.
Despite the grinning skulls and dedication to death, Día de los Muertos is a joyous celebration--a family reunion of the dead and living with special treats--and also a way to remember, grieve and find closure, knowing that loved ones will always come back. These days you can't visit an import store without a Day of the Dead skeleton smiling back at you. Even the WB cartoon show Mucha Lucha paid tribute with a Día de los Muertos episode. And we're pretty sure Target will get into the action soon with some mass-produced Day of the Dead décor and $5.99 sugar skull T-shirts.
Local events look to the past and to the future with art exhibits containing traditional representations and modern artistic statements. The Bath House Cultural Center's annual exhibit draws local, regional, national and even international artists with something to say about life, death and also the practices of Día de los Muertos. And works are as old as the traditions and as contemporary as the news. This year's show features works inspired by deaths we've all felt: American soldiers who have died in Iraq and those lost in Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In "Rise Up," Rita Barnard uses children's green and khaki plastic toy soldiers to represent the real lives lost. It's in great contrast to Magda Bowen's "Sweet Serenity," a more classical painting of a skeleton woman clutching marigolds, the flower associated with Day of the Dead. The Bath House also offers a community altar for the public to contribute to. The Ice House Cultural Center presents its own annual exhibit, La Calavera, which includes artwork and altars by local artists and students. Both exhibits show that as Día de los Muertos spreads into the United States and into popular culture, it doesn't lose its centuries-old meaning. Death is always around us, whether you're smiling like a dancing skeleton or one facelift away from looking like a mannequin.