“Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:54-55)
In St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he makes a bold claim: death does not defeat us, death is not the end. Christ’s death has brought resurrection; through God’s grace, eternal life is ours. Death, a consequence of sin, has been conquered by Christ’s sacrifice and triumph. St. Paul encourages the Corinthians to keep death in its rightful place. That is to say, we are not to take death lightly. Mindfulness of our mortality should motivate us to avoid sin and prepare for our final judgement. But we also should not give death power over us to keep us living in fear.
This acknowledgement of death’s rightful place is illustrated beautifully by the celebration of Día de Muertos in the Latino tradition. While this celebration pre-dates the arrival of Christianity to the Americas, the cultural intuition points toward the Gospel truth that the meaning of death, “is revealed in the light of the Paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ in whom resides our only hope” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1681). The people of Mexico and Latin America celebrate this feast, not out of a macabre fascination with death, but out of a whole-hearted belief that our earthly life is not all there is.
Día de Muertos is celebrated primarily on the 2nd of November, the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (or All Souls’ Day), but also throughout the entire month.
Altars, or ofrendas, are assembled and decorated with sugar skulls bearing names of the deceased, and pictures of loved ones are displayed. The favorite food and drink of the beloved dead are placed prominently on the altar. Families and friends celebrate at cemeteries by eating tamales and pan de muerto (a sweet bread topped with pieces of dough made to look like bones), drinking atole (a hot drink that is thickened with masa and sweetened), and singing along to the music of mariachi. Elaborately cut tissue paper (called papel picado) and brightly colored marigolds (or zempasuchil) line streets, altars, and gravesites. Candles are burned as the vigil is kept. Limericks, poems, cartoons, and jokes make fun of death. All of this is done to put death in its place, to recognize it for what it truly is, and remind us that death does not have the last word.
While we may still mourn, we place our hope in the Resurrection and look forward to reuniting with our loved ones in eternity. Entrusting them to the mercy of God, we pray that “as our faith in your Son, raised from the dead, is deepened, so may our hope of resurrection for your departed servants also find new strength” (Roman Missal, Collect for the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed).
From the very earliest days of Christianity, we have honored the memory of the dead with the greatest respect and offered prayers for them. The first martyrs’ places of death, burial sites, bodies, and even possessions (relics) were venerated. Churches were built in their honor, and the accounts of their lives, suffering, and death were proclaimed in celebrations.
Similarly, families gather on Día de Muertos and share about their beloved dead, passing on treasured memories to the next generation. They honor their loved ones, celebrate their lives, and pray for the souls of the faithful departed—a spiritual work of mercy.
This commemoration may not take away our pain or grief, but it does invite us to place our hope in the Resurrection and affirm that death has lost its power. “For even dead, we are not at all separated from one another, because we all run the same course and we will find one another again in the same place. We shall never be separated, for we live for Christ, and now we are united with Christ as we go toward him . . . we shall all be together in Christ.” (St. Simeon of Thessalonica, De ordine sepulturæ, as quoted in Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1690). Let us then celebrate today’s feast praising the Lord who “is not God of the dead but of the living” (Mk 12:27).