A couple of years ago Erendira Garcia, newly married and having moved from her native Mexico to the United States, was feeling homesick. She asked her husband if she could place an altar, or ofrenda, at the parish cemetery of Our Lady Queen of Peace in House Springs, where several generations of her husband’s family are buried.
Of course, Andy Ganey obliged his new bride. They invited family and a few friends and held their first Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebration in the cemetery, located about 20 minutes away in Byrnesville, on the feast of All Souls, Nov. 2. A popular tradition primarily in Mexico, Dia de los Muertos typically occurs over a two-day period on Nov. 1 and 2 — the Catholic Church’s feast days of All Saints and All Souls.
“Everyone back in Mexico was having a big celebration, and I was here,” Garcia said. “His parents became very excited and said, ‘Yes, let’s do it.’ My mother-in-law asked if she could invite some friends to join and learn, too. I was so happy, because now I’m not the only one” celebrating the tradition, she said. This year, the couple extended an invitation to Our Lady Queen of Peace parishioners, holding an evening celebration Nov. 2 at the cemetery in Byrnesville, site of the former St. Columbkille Parish, which came together with St. Philomena Church in House Springs in 1961 to form Our Lady Queen of Peace.
Today, Dia de los Muertos has both religious and cultural significance. The tradition originates among indigenous cultures, including the Aztec, Toltec and Nahua people, who considered death a continuation of life and not something to be mourned, but celebrated. Today, it has become a fusion of Catholic beliefs and some of the original indigenous traditions.
In Mexico, many spend the day visiting their deceased loved ones at the cemetery, sometimes followed by a party with food, music and activities. Growing up in Mexico City, Garcia would visit the cemetery to clean her grandmother’s gravestone. Afterward, she and her family gathered for a party and eat tamales and atole.
Garcia said she hopes to convey to others that the tradition is a happy occasion, focusing on the good memories of those who have died, and to pray for their souls. The month of November typically is a time to pray for the souls of the deceased. Catholics believe that our souls remain intact, even after death. We are obliged to pray for the salvation of the souls of the deceased, with the hope that they eventually will be united with Christ in Heaven. Our Christian hope is that our bodies and souls are united again through the resurrection when Christ returns.
“This is not something evil or witchcraft or something like that,” Garcia said. “I want to show them it’s something actually good and it’s about being happy and not sad, about the people we’ve lost.”
For the special evening in Byrnesville, Garcia dressed as La Catrina — a popular symbol of Dia de los Muertos depicting a woman wearing a fancy dress and hat, with her face painted in a skeletal design. She greeted parishioners under the cemetery pavilion, as she organized the ofrenda decorated with photos of deceased loved ones, along with their favorite foods and personal items. Tables under the pavilion were lined with food, crafts for the children and face painting. Garcia’s parents, who were visiting from Mexico, had pozole, a traditional Mexican stew, and several types of tequila for sampling.
Once it became dark, candles and sempasuchil, a type of marigold flower popular in Mexico, were placed along the graves, some of them dating back to 1850, according to Andy Ganey’s father, Ken Ganey who serves as cemetery caretaker. Our Lady Queen of Peace pastor Father Dennis Schmidt blessed the candles and offered a blessing to the souls of the departed. Even though the Mexican tradition is new to many parishioners, there’s a certain familiarity visiting the deceased at the cemetery, he said.
“It’s celebrating life,” he said. “It’s a time to remember those who have gone before you.”
The event brought back fond memories for Tola Spuhl, who hadn’t experienced Dia de los Muertos since she was a teenager living in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, many years ago. Her son, Bill Spuhl Jr., who is friends with the Ganey family, invited his mom to the celebration. “This has just been a wonderful evening,” she said as she sat near a fire pit among a row of graves. “To me, it’s beautiful and an awareness (the deceased) are still with us, even though we don’t see them anymore.”
This was Nancy Hollingshead’s first experience with Dia de los Muertos, although she visits the cemetery regularly as part of a crew of volunteers that help maintain the grounds every other week. A member of Our Lady Queen of Peace for more than 50 years, she has great-grandparents, grandparents, her father and a brother buried at the cemetery in Byrnesville.
“I love the cemetery,” she said. “When I go around and do the weed-eating, I know so many of these people because of having lived in this little town for five generations. As I go by I think of them, and I think of different stories or different things that have happened. There’s a lot of memories here.”
Garcia’s mother, Marta Guzman, who was dishing out pozole to guests, said through the translation of her son-in-law that Dia de los Muertos “is a party for the living. We come here to remember and pray for the dead. We don’t focus on the fact that they’re dead now, but that they’re happy. It gives us a chance to spend the night with them again.”
But most importantly, Guzman said that Catholics “have faith and trust in the Resurrection. One day we’re going to be first with God and then resurrected together — if we’re good,” she said with a smile.