My first experience with the mourning process involved a simple black dress.
It was the late '70s—I cannot recall the exact year—and we were visiting my recently widowed grandmother in South Philadelphia. She had come to America years before, with other immigrants on a boat to Ellis Island. She and my grandfather settled in South Philly, surrounded by friends and neighbors from Italy who brought the language and customs with them.
One particular custom came in the form of the aforementioned black dress. The social norm was for a widow to wear a black dress in public for one year after her husband's passing.
As an impressionable young teen, I watched as a neighbor called on my grandmother one day. The doorbell buzzed, and my grandmother instructed my mother to answer the door. In the meantime, my grandmother rushed up the stairs to change out of a flowered housecoat and into a black dress. She came downstairs minutes later to greet the visitor and accept their well wishes.
This scene has stayed with me for many years because of the strength of that social norm: It was considered indecent not to follow the year-long black-dress custom. So in my young mind, I linked etiquette to death and mourning.
As an extension, I witnessed the mourning process as a somber affair. There was an air of stoic sadness that wafted off my grandmother and other Italian widows I saw in the community.
These days, in this city, the simple black dress isn't a requirement at funerals. I was surprised to see black worn by guests at a recent wedding I attended. (I'm sure it's been that way for years, but I'm not one to keep up with fashion trends.) And when I came to Tucson and first saw the masks, skeletons and skulls associated with the All Souls Procession, it was a new concept: Honoring the dead with celebration and creativity? My grandmother and other Italian widows wouldn't have understood that one.
Coincidentally, a book arrived at the office recently, entitled About Grief: Insights, Setbacks, Grace Notes, Taboos, by Ron Marasco and Arizonan Brian Shuff. I flipped open to see this passage: We live in a culture that avoids discussion of this heart-breaking topic. The writer Joan Didion said about Americans, "We don't do grief." It remains a hidden and awkward matter even in a time when few other taboos are left standing.
I agree: As a culture, we don't do grief. Death is often seen as an ominous fate that awaits us all. Considering this less-than-festive view of death, here's where American culture can learn from our southern neighbors: Mexico's Dia de los Muertos is a time of celebration of those who have passed.
Fortunately, in our corner of the United States, we have learned this lesson well. Tucson's All Souls Procession started in 1990 when artist Susan Johnson was grieving the passing of her father. According to www.allsoulsprocession.org, Johnson was inspired by Mexico's Dia de los Muertos, and felt she should honor her father in celebration and creativity. The performance was well-received, and many artists were inspired to continue growing the procession into its modern incarnation. The turnout this weekend, as in years past, will be in the thousands.
For those who may bypass the large crowd for a quiet movie, theaters are showing the recently released Hereafter, starring Matt Damon. Interestingly enough, the American character in the film is serious and somber, while the European—in happy moments—lights up the screen. She has had a near-death experience, and during it, she felt the peace and joy that so many others have reported.
It's an interesting dichotomy. Many of those who have experienced the other side come back and speak of the serenity and love they felt. On this side, in this culture, there are tears and sadness. It is understandable and expected to shed tears and grieve the loss of a loved one. But on the other hand, I believe that our loved ones live on.
So the festive nature of the All Souls Procession and Dia de los Muertos seems right on target. It's a time to remember, honor and rejoice. The deceased live in spirit on the other side, and are alive in our memories and hearts. That's something worth celebrating—and no black dress is required.