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Learning to live with differing death rituals

As Americans get ready for Halloween with costumes and candy, across the border in Mexico florists are stocking their shelves with wreaths and flower arrangements.

El Dia de los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead, is Nov. 1, and it is not at all about skulls and crossbones as depicted in the U.S.

“When it’s done right, it’s a day of remembrance,” Manuel Martinez, owner of Martinez Funeral Home in Little Village, told me. “It’s not a day of ghosts and spirits.”

In Chicago, some will attend mass; others will light candles. In Mexico, it’s a national holiday and many flock to cemeteries to pay their respects.

I have never been to Mexico on that day, but several years ago I visited shortly after, when florists were trying to restock their inventory.

A shop owner pieced together a small arrangement of carnations and mums that I took to my father’s grave. I was touched that my relatives already had decorated the site on the Day of the Dead, and the flowers remained.

That I knew so little about the holiday surprised me. But when it came to burials, and their religious significance for Mexicans, there was a lot I didn’t know.

To start with, cremation is widely unaccepted. I had my dad cremated.

We sent ashes to be buried in Mexico. I found out this was unpopular when I went to the Mexican consulate to get approval for the ashes to be transported to Mexico.

“Mexicans don’t do that,” an administrative assistant said. A consulate official said practically the same.

“We expected to bury a body,” an aunt said to me by phone after the ashes arrived.

I spoke to a retired Catholic priest last week about Mexican rituals related to the Day of the Dead and told him my dad was cremated.

“Honey, please,” he said. “That’s a big thing down there.”

I had to know why. The Catholic Church, after all, gave the OK on cremation years ago. The priest, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak by the Archdiocese of Chicago, explained that it ties to baptism and that Mexicans still regard it with deep sentiment.

“The body is made into a temple of the Holy Spirit,” he said.

To me baptism is a spiritual, not a literal, transformation. I am pretty sure my father felt the same way. When he was dying of cancer yet still talking about beating it, I had to ask if he considered the possibility that he wouldn’t survive.

I told him I had to know if he wanted to be buried or cremated. He said it didn’t matter because when someone dies, it is the spirit that moves on. “Not the body,” he added.

My mom, who was divorced from my father but on good terms with him, had told me she wanted to be cremated. I saw it as common ground for them.

Apparently my immigrant parents also had become disconnected from their roots on this topic. Backlash from relatives and the consulate over the cremation shocked even my mom. It was a crazy time.

My relatives’ anger eventually diminished. They understood I had good intentions.

I am sure that on Nov. 1, my dad’s grave will be decorated. I am thankful for the extended family members who do this annually.

It’s a beautiful thing, really, when loved ones are remembered.

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