Editorial: Remembering the Dead With Joy on Their Day

By Becky O’Malley
Friday November 02, 2007

Today, Nov.2, is the date called All Souls Day in my childhood. There was a two-tier system for remembering the dead in those days. All Saints’ Day, Nov. 1, was a Holy Day of Obligation, a day when everyone was supposed to go to church to honor the superstars, the church-certified superstars like St. Francis of Assisi. The next day, an optional church day, was for the regular folks, no better or worse than anyone else, who had departed for Heaven before our time, who might be there already or were perhaps having a temporary layover in Purgatory to get ready for the big time. We were supposed to try to speed them on their journey with our prayers on All Souls Day. 

As we became more sophisticated (high school and above) it was acknowledged that the fun and games of Halloween were derived from its Oct. 31 date just prior to All Saints and All Souls, and the really sophisticated among us spoke knowingly of the Celtic traditions around this time of year which predated the Christianizing of the British Isles. On Halloween we indulged ourselves in fantasies that the Dead (or the Undead) were still among us in some scary way, but only the little kids really believed that was true. 

My New England ancestors had a typically sober way of thinking about the dead, as exemplified in the Longfellow poem that I memorized as a child: 


Lives of great men all remind us 

We can make our lives sublime, 

And, departing, leave behind us 

Footprints on the sands of time;” 


Readers were exhorted to live meaningfully in the present, not to obsess about death: 


Let the dead past bury its dead. 


In more recent times, starting here in California but now spreading around the world, all kinds of people have become acquainted with the traditions inherited by the Mexican people from their indigenous ancestors. The Dia de Los Muertos festivities celebrate the lives of those now dead in many colorful ways, notably with elaborate displays memorializing through art what the departed did in life. Even though these offerings prominently feature skeletons, they’re not scary, solemn or sad, but cheery, or even comic. Adding this joyful note to the way we think about the dead is a wonderful contribution to our contemporary culture. 

In the spirit of the day, in my restrained Anglo way, I’ve been building altars in my head to the memory of those now gone whose lives cheered mine while they were here. I’ve been thinking about my friend Ann Tondu, who revived my interest in jazz and taught me to love opera. When it became clear that the breast cancer which seized her in her forties, much too young, was likely to take her away, she began, at top speed, creating a series of lovely pastel portraits of friends and family. Her picture of my youngest child at 11 or 12, which hangs in the living room, is an uncanny forecast of what my daughter would look like as a young woman.  

I’m remembering Elsa Knight Thompson, from whom I learned that there’s no such thing as “the news,” but that news is the concert of many voices, though only some of them are singing on key. Oh, and “establish and maintain a constant relationship with the microphone” when you’re on the radio, if you want to sound authoritative.  

Our mutual friend Pele de Lappe, who died recently, outlived Elsa by 20 years. Pele always seemed to me to be acting out the song of Mehitabel the Cat:  


my youth i shall never forget 

but there s nothing i really regret 

wotthehell wotthehell 

there s a dance in the old dame yet 

toujours gai toujours gai 


The last time I say her she was attending an exhibit at the de Young in a wheel chair, enjoying every minute of the experience. 

And while we’re talking about enjoying life from a wheelchair, I think of my mother-in-law, the painter Mary Holmes, who had crippling arthritis in her last two decades, but went on painting beautiful pictures from her chair even when she could no longer stand at her easel or hold the brush as she used to. The secret of life, with all due deference to the New England ancestors, seems to be finding joy wherever you can.  

The artists among us are the lucky few who can leave tangible monuments for future generations, but we shouldn’t undervalue the contribution of those who simply were good company at parties. Our cousin Christopher’s partner Glen could always be counted on as an extra pair of hands in the kitchen on Christmas, and he was a great source of amusing comments on family idiosyncracies.  

Some people are remembered because of what they do for others, in public or private contexts. My rowdy neighbor Judy was the hub of a durable commune for many years, and was a mainstay of Food Not Bombs in her still-radical middle age. Another neighbor, Roseanne, supported equally good causes in a much more ladylike way, encouraged a number of young people to share her love of music, and took loving care of her husband for many years after he survived a disabling stroke. 

When you start reminiscing about the departed, in fact, there’s no end to the list of those who are still in living memory. The glory of the Mexican tradition is that the dead are not simply memorialized by stone monuments, but their lives are displayed in an active, vigorous present-day context.  

And judging by the kids who rang my doorbell on Halloween night, here in California, those traditions should be part of all our futures. Many children who were wearing Superman and Snow White costumes were saying “Trick or Treat” in English even as their parents were reminding them in Spanish not to be greedy and to say thank you. Let’s hope that besides insisting on good manners, their parents are also teaching them to continue the Dia de Los Muertos idea of celebrating those who have gone before us, who live still because we remember them. It’s become one of the best parts of our complex shared culture.