Dia de los Muertos: In memory of …

I grew up in North Dakota. Every Memorial Day until we moved, my extended family gathered at the cemetery to tidy up the graves of my ancestors, plant a few flowers and hope for rain.

Post World War II, the country changed. Family farms slowly came to a close. My father never really liked farming, so instead of leasing our farm, he sold out and moved us several hours away, just 50 miles from the Canadian border. Memorial Day visits to our ancestor’s graves dwindled.

After my parents retired from their city jobs they made another move, this time to the sunny Southwest. They would never shovel snow again in the little desert town just 30 miles from the Mexican border. Not long after, I followed them.

For over 20 years, I embraced the desert culture and synthesized it with my North Dakota Lutheran self. I am very fussy with how my red chili is prepared, and I still own my high-powered bread mixer that has a motor capable of running a tractor. I want nice, fat beef from the heartland and not the skinny desert cattle. I break out with my Spanglish “EEEE hua Lah” and Norwegian “Uff Dah” in the same run-on phrases. (After years of asking, I am convinced neither has specific translation, both expressions are like saying “holy cow!”)

This time of year, as Dia de los Muertos approaches, I’m sometimes unaware that a certain sadness is seeping through me. The Day of the Dead. Then I remember why. As the season cools and darkens it brings on a certain contemplation. It’s a time to pause and remember those who have passed on. Some were loved ones, some were known for other reasons. All are remembered.

The southern region of the United States was Mexico until 1853, when the Mexicans of the region were informed, “Ta da, you are all Americans now.” In the fall, particularly around October, cemeteries become hubs of activity in preparation for the Day of the Dead.

Offrendas are set up in homes and businesses honoring and remembering individuals who have passed on. They are tiered and decorated with good cloth, favorite foods and favorite objects of the deceased. Candles, sugar skulls when available and the traditional pan, sugary topped yeast bread, are attractively arranged for the deceased to enjoy in the afterworld. Multiple generations of family stop by to examine photo albums, listen to family stories, laugh and shed a few tears.

Because the holiday typically falls on Nov. 1 and 2, Dia de los Muertos gets mixed up with Halloween and is often misunderstood. While Halloween is celebrated with masks and the macabre, Dia de los Muertos is a celebration of lives well lived.

I have heard that we actually die three times. The first comes when our bodies cease to function and we are declared dead. The second comes when the body is buried or cremated. The third takes place when no one is left alive to remember us.

In my small-town, North Dakota culture, we celebrated Memorial Day. Once, while bouncing along old roads and fields of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in a 1950 pickup with my best friend, we came upon a memorial tucked way off where the road ended at Lake Sakakawea.

In a tattered, abandoned building we found a tidy, carefully constructed memorial, much like the offrendas of the border region. A buffalo skull faced the west window, the direction of the setting sun. Packs of cigarettes and matches, a single box of crackers, a candy bar, a few photographs and piles of blankets and cloth were carefully arranged. It was clear, out in the middle of nowhere, someone’s memory was being tenderly cared for.

As the Earth turns toward winter, commercial holidays are thrust upon us with every commercial on TV and every trip to the store. But for me, Dia de los Muertos is the most touching. I am reminded to live a life that is memorable. I am reminded of lessons from those who have passed on that are worthy of keeping alive. I am reminded that a life well lived will be a life well missed and well remembered. I wish the same to you.

Berma Matteson lives in Brookings.

Share This Story