The celebration of the Day of the Dead takes elements from the culture of Mexica, Mayan, Purépecha and Totonaca natives, when they would make a great feast on the first full moon of the month of November, to celebrate the completion of the corn harvest. They believed that on that day, the dead were allowed to return to earth to celebrate and share with their living relatives the fruits of the earth, and show that death was not the end of life but simply a transformation.
The Catholic Church teaches that when a person dies, they are no longer able to do anything to gain heaven; however, we the living, can offer our prayers and works for the deceased to help them reach salvation. With good works and prayer, we can help loved ones receive the forgiveness and cleansing of their sins in order to share in the glory of God. These prayers are called suffrage. Therefore, the best thing that we can do is to offer Mass for the dead. The Church, with a greater vision for evangelization, has said that the Day of the Dead, promotes and strengthens the cultural and religious expressions of our people who express a sincere search for God. Day of the Dead is much more than just a celebration of visiting the grave of a loved one, family gatherings and eating together. Day of the Dead in the Christian belief is what the Church calls “dies natalis, the day of his heavenly birth, where “there will be no more death, and no more mourning or sadness [for] the world of the past has gone” (Rev 21:4). Death is the prolongation, in a new way, of life.”1
Therefore, the celebration of the Day of the Dead is to celebrate life, is a true celebration of life and we can use the traditional altar used on that day to highlight the deeper Christian reality. It is right to catechize and evangelize others of our traditions and to avoid falling into the dangers that may deviate from the Catholic faith:
- the invocation of the dead for divination practices
- the risk that insinuate forms of belief in reincarnation
- the danger of denying the immortality of the soul and of separating the event of death from the prospect of resurrection
Here are some ways that you can decorate the altar. One can make a path with Cempaxuchitl flower petals, as we remember that Jesus is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (Jn 14:6), and the flowers reflect the sun giving life. The seven baskets of sweets (7 like the sacraments) and sweets like the graces that support the Church. Around the altar we place candles representing the light of Christ given to us in baptism and that Christ is the “Light of the World” so that “whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.“(Jn 8:12), and in the center we can place a crucifix, as Christ is the center of our lives. Within the same altar we can place image of our deceased and remember that we are created in God’s “image and likeness” (Gen. 1:26) and put bread that reminds us of the words of Jesus: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven, whoever eats this bread will live forever. And the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world“(Jn 6:50-51).
That is why we must remember the dead, not grudgingly but with joy, the same joy with which they are enjoying this feast that never ends: the glorious return to the Father. Therefore, the best way to celebrate the Day of the Dead is by attending and participating in the Mass, praying the rosary for the deceased and visiting cemeteries.
1 Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Vatican City, 2002, no. 249.
Sources: (Secretariado de pastoral Litúrgica de la Arquidiócesis de México, Catholic.net)