Dealing with Death – Dia de los Muertos vs. The Irish Wake

The traditions and circumstances that surround the passing of a loved one are meant to comfort the living and those on death’s door. While many turn to religion for guidance and reassurances, others choose to take a more secular view. However death is acknowledged, the treatment of the dead and remembrance of those who have passed is a significant mark of culture.

I’ve always found the dichotomy in how the Mexican culture treats death fascinating. The strong influence of the Roman Catholic Church in this region surrounds death and funerals with somber ceremony and traditions. Death and salvation are serious matters. On the other hand, the Día de los Muertos festival is a celebration of the dead with a strong focus on the remembrance of loved ones. Families will often clean and decorate the grave sites, bringing offerings of food, candles, and other momentos of the departed. Some individuals will even establish permanent shrines to the deceased in their homes or businesses. While spirituality is an essential element, so is celebration and remembrance.

The Irish, especially those in the country, share this dichotomous view of death. Though the concept of an Irish wake has been heavily influenced by stereotype, their traditions originate in the beliefs of the ancient Celts and have been preserved through the country’s conversion to Catholicism. If the person died at home, the mirrors are turned to face the walls and all the clocks are stopped at the time of death. The body is prepared for viewing (often by the funeral home), and returned to the house where it is attended by at least one person for the remainder of the wake. Once the guests begin arriving, they are expected to spend some time with the deceased in either prayer or contemplation. Only then do people partake of the alcohol, the food, and the stories that outsiders commonly associate with Irish funerals. It is meant to be both a remembrance and a celebration of the life of the departed.

The interesting thing about these two examples of death and remembrance is that though both countries are strongly affected by Catholicism, and have essentially the same masses for the dead, their ancient roots and traditions can also be clearly seen. Humans will always be fascinated and terrified by death, and so long as cultures exist, so will the need to acknowledge mortality. As cultures are absorbed into nations and empires, converted to new faiths, and exposed to the beliefs and traditions of trading partners, their views on and treatment of death will evolve, but never disappear entirely.

As writers, we need to remember that much of human culture is driven by our own mortality. How a society deals with the passing of loved ones will play a major role in defining them as individuals and as a people. Ultimately, the traditions that surround the parting with, the remembering, and the celebrating of the dead form an essential cornerstone of any society’s identity.


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