By Bonnie Browning
And in the Dust be Equal Made
References to the theme of “Death as the Great Equalizer” abound throughout literature and history. Nowhere is it more relevant than in the purpose and meaning of the Mexican holiday we celebrate adjacent to Halloween, Dia de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead). As we approach this, my favorite of holidays, I’m reflecting on the similarities of a recent process unburdening my life and the themes of the holiday itself. The parallels are noteworthy and I am reminded that death is the one great equalizer; the one destination, regardless of our worldly accumulations, we all share.
This year I made a conscious decision to stop accumulating; moreover, I began a material catharsis. I sold my home, most of its contents and the majority of my personal effects. After spending the past 12 years somewhat obsessively filling every inch of a 3000 sq. ft. home, 2-car garage and a 1 acre yard just outside of Austin, TX, I’m now unencumbered in the best way. It’s “all gone” and I surprised even myself by never once crying or getting emotional over the changes and decisions that could not be reversed. I call it freedom but my friends and family jokingly use another term for my current state: homeless. But for me It’s been a without regrets sheading of sorts that is unexpectedly freeing and has me thinking a lot more these days about who we are without our “things” to maintain our identity. Our businesses, our cars, our houses and careers – possessions only relevant to the living which serve to create differences and judgments among us. Are we not more of our thoughts and actions? In either event, one truth rises above all else, in death we all have a commonality from which the spoils of this earth cannot separate us.
All share a common destiny-the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not…For the living know that they will die (Ecclesiastes 9:2-3, 12-13).
It is entirely coincidental that the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos and our Halloween fall at the same time. They are not the same, or even similar; each holds distinct significance and origin. Growing up as a Texan, I celebrated both and can discern and cherish the meanings and purpose of Dia de los Muertos. The theme that most exemplifies my recent unburdening lies in the Mexican holiday’s most recognizable emblem “La Calavera Catrina”. I have a personal collection of La Catrina statues acquired over the years normally displayed with pride in the house I just sold. They now slumber gently in an assortment of carefully and painstakingly packed boxes stacked high in a storage unit out of harm’s way (a few of the limited items I allowed myself to keep after the big purge).
The origin of the skeletons/skulls and the icon that is most commonly associated with the holiday is a circa 1911 etching by Jose Guadalupe Posada, the famous Mexican printmaker and lithographer which he called “La Calavera Catrina” or Dapper Skeleton, Elegant Skull. Because she wears a dress and hat conforming to the European rich and fancy of the day, she is offered as a satirical portrait of those Mexican natives who, Posada felt, were aspiring to adopt European aristocratic traditions in the pre-revolutionary era. The image goes back to the ancient Aztec period, and Posada is said to have taken his inspiration from Mictecacihuatl, Goddess of Death and Lady of Mictlan, the underworld.
La Catrina has come to symbolize not only Dia de los Muertos which celebrates death and allows us to commemorate and commune with gone loved ones, it also highlights the original Catrina, an elegant, well dressed skeleton with a magnificent hat who depicts the rich who show their wealth through material things. Since we need to be reminded of death’s equalizing nature, the holiday and La Catrina are there to provide the needful.
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. (Steve Jobs Commencement speech, Stanford University).
At points in our lives it is necessary to manage more material things, like homes for our families. I’m lucky that my daughters are happily grown and both live successfully on their own. As my life has evolved I have less need to acquire. “Sheading” has put me closer to “not of this world” states like the one in which I arrived – with nothing; and also closer to the way in which we will all commonly leave through death. For that, and for Dia de los Muertos arriving to serve as a reminder, I thank the universe.
The glories of our blood and state
Are shadows, not substantial things;
Death lays his icy hand on Kings;
Sceptre and crown
Must tumble down
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.
(James Shirley 1646)
Publishers Note: Regular Open Space columnist, Lori Welch Brown took a break in order to properly celebrate her 50th birthday with a whirlwind trip to Italy. We are happy to have our friend Bonnie Browning fill in.