The Spirits Are Arriving

Dia de los Muertos“To forget one’s ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without a root.” Chinese Proverb

The visitations begin early for me. I get a nudge from my sister, Pat…”How about hummus?” Mom is always insistent on her butter beans (but this year I’m making her slaw). And I’m not sure whether it is my husband’s mother or all of the guests who are lobbying for her beloved Mac and Cheese.

It isn’t all about food, though.

I have sweet thoughts of remembrance for those who have gone before me. When I see the array of friends and family on the altar, I am stunned by so many losses. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, sisters: their deaths are chinks in the memory-keeping and our buffer against mortality. The losses are the young ones – my one sister who died too soon, my niece, my grandniece, my grandson’s best friend and his mother soon after – these are losses. My friends whose children died before their time – these are losses.

And we lost another child this year. This was a grown man, but he was a cherished child of his mother and father and the youngest of the cohort of my children’s youth. His death brings the most fresh sorrow since he was like our own.

But there always seem to be new photos on the mantle. My bff from high school is the first girlfriend to be featured on the altar. My husband also lost a friend and mentor from his early years and although we don’t have a photo of him, we’ll find a toy race car and add it in his honor.

November 1 is not a time for mourning these deaths. It is a time for remembering and celebrating those who have contributed to our lives. It is a time to eat their favorite foods and share memories of their lives. We share this holiday with our close friends. We eat. We drink. We laugh. We may even shed a tear, but we do it with the assurance that no one is forgotten. No one lived in vain. We are all testimony to that.

I don’t know of a greeting for this day. There is no “merry” this or “happy” that. Still, there is a firm connection when we wander along the altar, catching up on the biographies of faces freshly missed and those long gone. There is a joining together of spirits – the spirits of our friends and family who come in the flesh for this celebration, and the spirits of those who are tempted back by our fine offerings.

It is a joyous reunion.




  1. I am the eldest in my immediate family. I don’t follow this practice. For my extended family, which means the family of my father’s brothers and their progeny, the eldest is a surviving cousin elder to me and very close to me as a friend, philosopher and guide. He does not follow the practice either. But, it is a very widely practiced one in India in orthodox households.


  2. Hi:
    My first time here. Quite a moving article. I perform a tarpana ( satisfying with liquid comprising water, sesame seeds ) five days out of seven every week, ( not performed on Fridays or Sundays) to all of those ancestors with whom I may have had contact in ANY of my births, plus gurus, rishis and devas. This is quite satisfying to me and hope is satisfying to their souls also. It only takes about 8 minutes to do with practice. Thank you.


    • Hi Raj,
      As I have grown older I have learned more formal ways to honor my ancestors, which I think is different that honoring age and wisdom. I have learned to treasure the gifts of my ancestors rather than to shudder in dismay when I notice the genetic instincts and foibles. I understand that what has come before me has almost as much to do with who I am as what I have contributed to my own life. My gratitude for these gifts is now a part of my life.
      How we express this gratitude is different in different cultures but I think it is important in all. Thank you for sharing this with me.


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