You wouldn’t know it by looking at my four littlest children — all towheads — but I’m half Mexican.
There are many beautiful Latino Catholic traditions, but one of our annual favorites is the celebration of All Souls’ Day, or Día de Los Muertos, on November 2. By taking this opportunity to remember and pray for our dead friends and relatives, we remind our children of several crucial Catholic truths.
The Church has many parts in one body
We on earth are members of the Church Militant, fighting for our salvation against the darkness in this world. The saints, glorious in heaven, are the Church Triumphant (and they have their own special day on November 1, the Feast of All Saints).
But what about Uncle Walter, who was a pretty good guy but maybe not straight-through-the-gates-of-heaven material? Souls that still need to be perfected before they reach the eternal happiness of heaven are in Purgatory. They are the Church Penitent. And it is these souls that we celebrate on All Souls.
Prayer is a work of mercy
We pray for our dead in a number of ways throughout November. The first thing we do is to print an empty calendar for the month of November. In each day’s square, we hand-write a name of someone who has died that year, and pray for that person’s soul during our family evening prayer.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.
May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
It takes 10 seconds (okay, it takes 10 minutes, if you count the time it takes to organize six children in one place to actually say the prayer). Doing so, though, helps us to demonstrate concretely to our children that we as Christians have an obligation not just to ourselves and our own salvation, but to each other.
Praying for the living and the dead is one of the spiritual works of mercy. No one reaches heaven alone.
Death is not the end
In addition to the traditional prayer for the dead, each year we put together a family ofrenda, a small prayer altar in a central location. And this is where the Mexican-Catholic part comes in!
We include pictures of those we love who have passed on, including both family and friends who have been important in our lives. We surround the pictures with flowers, candles, and soul cakes, small spiced loaves baked for the occasion (or sometimes store-bought, in the spirit of full disclosure).
In Latin American countries, these ofrendas can get quite elaborate, including the favorite food, drinks, games, and toys of the deceased. But ours isn’t, and yours doesn’t have to be. It’s enough to put up the pictures of Oma (my husband’s Grandma Miriam) and for our own Miriam to hear the stories about how he used to travel all over the Western Hemisphere with her. It’s enough to have a picture of Gigi, my own grandmother, that the kids can stop and wave hi to each time they pass it for a few weeks.
The love we shared with these people in life continues after death. They are part of our family’s daily rhythm for a while, present in a tangible and memorable way. By speaking openly about their lives — and even more importantly, about their deaths — we take away death’s power to confuse, obfuscate, and frighten us away from the truth about our eternal salvation.
Liturgical living made simple
If an ofrenda seems like too much, how about a trip through your family’s photo album, telling stories about Uncle Walter and wrapping it up with a simple “God bless”? If an additional daily prayer for the dead feels overwhelming, try adding it to the tail end of grace before meals this month.
And if all else fails, the recent Pixar movie Coco features ofrendas at many crucial moments. While not strictly theological in nature (ahem), the film is a great way to connect your children to two key ideas.
First, we are responsible for each other, even after death.
Second, and most importantly, death is not the end, but the beginning of a new, beautiful journey into eternal life, into the arms of God.
Copyright 2019 Christy Wilkens