A Celebration of Life–Dia de los Muertos

The end-of-lunch bell had already rung and I was late entering the traffic jam of the hallway. “Ms. Ma’ake!” I had no choice but to stop amid my mad dash to the classroom. “I bought sugar skulls for you,” Claudia proudly stated, “for Dia de los Muertos! I thought of you when I saw them!” I couldn’t help but smile. Claudia hadn’t been the first student in the past few weeks to ask me if we were decorating and celebrating the Day of the Dead again this year. Somehow, the holiday had become associated with me during my first year of teaching at Notre Dame Academy, ironic in itself since it was new to me until I began teaching at an inner city, predominantly Latina high school in Los Angeles a few years back. The beauty of the Dia de los Muertos traditions struck me in such a profound way during my years at Bishop Conaty, that the rituals and symbols – the ornate altars decorated with pictures, sugar skulls, marigolds, food and drink – became my own. I had been so surprised to find out that it wasn’t already a celebrated school tradition at Notre Dame that I took it upon myself to educate my classes of the Mexican tradition of celebrating loved ones who had passed on. We spent days making paper flowers, painting calaveras (skulls), praying for the people in the photographs we brought in, and decorating the ofrenda (altar) in the chapel.


Rooted in ancient Aztec belief that death is simply and wonderfully a continuation of life, this holiday celebrates our loved ones who have moved beyond the physical limitations of this world. It is a joyous occasion, where graveyards are decorated, families feast, and the living dance with the memories of those souls who live on. The history of the holiday and its connection to Catholicism are interesting. Like many cultural traditions, the Day of the Dead became intertwined with the Catholic feasts of All Saints and All Souls after the introduction of Spanish conquistadores to Mexico. The Spanish were unsuccessful in eradicating the cultural practice of the indigenous people, and over time, the beauty of the Aztec beliefs were enmeshed with the truth of the Catholic faith tradition. Say what you will about this complicated history, for me the current practice of Dia de los Muertos is another awesome reminder of how faith and culture need each other to be fully expressed.


I love the tradition and ritual of the Day of the Dead because it hits home for me on so many levels. This past summer I was blessed with the opportunity to travel back home to Tonga, the land of my father. I say back home even though it was my first trip, because it truly was a return – a fulfillment – of my dream to know my roots. The reason for our visit was my uncle’s funeral, a seemingly sad occasion at first glance. I wanted to be with my family and experience the funeral rite of my Tongan heritage. I had no idea what was in store. The Tongan funeral ritual is beautifully elaborate and prayerful in a way I had never experienced. For nights leading up to the wake and funeral, apo, community members don the mats traditionally worn on important occasions and gather at the hospital to pray and sing over the body. Here at the hospital the apo officially begins, as the body is prepared for the nightlong celebration. The family’s home is decorated with colorful blankets and lace, flowers, pictures, Tongan mats and tapa cloth and the body laid out for viewing. Villagers from all over the island gather first for mass outside of the home and then for the all night vigil of feasting, gift exchange and song. Once the sun rises, the whole community gathered processes with the body through the town to the church for the funeral mass and burial.


Months have passed since my time in Tonga, and I still often find myself at a loss for words when I try to explain the transformation I experienced there. While the loss of my uncle was difficult, the focus of my time in Tonga was not grief and sadness, but hope. Like Dia de los Muertos, my uncle’s apo was a celebration of life, a testament to the strength and importance of community, and a reminder of what our Catholic faith is all about – resurrection.


Tefi Ma’ake spends much of her day either laughing (internally) at the silly things her students say or pondering the profound wisdom 16-year-old girls sometime surprise her with, all the while encouraging an honest and necessary questioning of faith and Church. Currently a high school teacher and campus minister, Tefi soon hopes to pursue doctoral studies in the field of religious education and multicultural theology.
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