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Sandy Journal

Day of the Dead lets the living honor the dearly departed

Oct 14, 2019 04:07PM ● By Heather Lawrence

The Day of the Dead altar created by Brittany Stephenson’s Introduction to Folklore class at SLCC in 2018. (Photo courtesy Brittany Stephenson/SLCC)

By Heather Lawrence | [email protected]

The Day of the Dead, El Día de los Muertos, falls fast on the heels of Halloween. Day of the Dead is Nov. 1 and 2 but it’s a separate holiday, not an extension of Halloween. After you’ve come down from your sugar rush, here’s how and why to celebrate Day of the Dead. 

“Day of the Dead is a culturally significant holiday in Mexico and other Latin American countries. It’s not spooky or scary. Essentially, it’s about accepting that death is a part of life and honoring loved ones who have passed away,” said Taylor Timmerman, development coordinator for the Utah Cultural Celebration Center in West Valley City. 

Timmerman said the Día de los Muertos event at UCCC was begun by requests from the community. “Our event has grown over the years. This year is our 16th annual Day of the Dead celebration, and it’s an all-day event,” Timmerman said. Tickets for the Nov. 2 event are available on Eventbrite. 

The UCCC event features food, traditional Mexican dancers and performers, ofrendas set up by community members, a Catrina contest and an art exhibit. The art exhibit runs Oct. 24-Nov. 6.  

Can non-Latinos/as celebrate? “Yes! It’s a neat holiday because it’s honoring those who have passed away, and that’s something everyone can relate to. If you aren’t familiar with it or haven’t celebrated it before, have an open mind about how it’s celebrated and what it means,” Timmerman said. 

A key thing for novices to know about is the ofrenda. “An ofrenda is an altar used to honor the lives of loved ones who have passed,” said Brittany Stephenson, who teaches Introduction to Folklore at Salt Lake Community College.

“The altars are typically set up in cemeteries, homes and churches. They contain photographs and objects significant to the loved one(s) along with traditional materials such as candles, sugar skulls, marigolds, monarchs and papel picado (colorful paper banners),” Stephenson said. 

Stephenson began creating altars as a class project in 2016. Their altar is displayed at the UCCC event. “The marigolds symbolize death, and the butterflies are the visiting spirits,” Stephenson said of the traditional décor. The 2017 Disney-Pixar movie “Coco” showed the bridge between the land of the living and the land of the dead as paved with marigold petals. 

Restaurants also get in on the festivities. “Years ago my husband and I traveled to Mexico and we were there on Day of the Dead. The way they honored their family members that had passed away was amazing. It was really emotional. So we celebrate it each year at our restaurant,” said Kris Cappaert, owner of the Blue Iguana in Salt Lake City. 

“We make it a big deal and have so much fun. We have a table set up in the waiting room to paint our employees’ and customers’ faces, and little kids love it. We have live music. Our chef, Manuel Castillo, grew up in Mexico, and he creates special dishes that night. It’s really special,” Cappaert said. 

Valley View Cemetery in West Valley encourages people to come celebrate with them. “On Friday, Nov. 1, we’ll have an event from 4-6 p.m. We set up an altar in our chapel and bring in food. We work with Latinos in Action, and their students will bring dancers and decorations. We have activities for the kids like face painting,” said Julie Kinder, community relations manager for Valley View and Wasatch Lawn cemeteries. 

Valley View started their event last year when they saw the interest in the community. “We want to be out in the community. We try to meet their needs and support them in their cultural beliefs,” Kinder said. 

The grave decoration policy for Day of the Dead differs for each cemetery. Most don’t allow glass vases at any time. Valley View cleans up Day of the Dead décor on Nov. 18. Midvale City employee Andrea Andreason said schools will come clean up their cemetery and leave roses for Day of the Dead. They clean up live flowers after seven days. 

A familiar sight during Day of the Dead is Catrina. “The current image of Catrina is a skeleton wearing a fancy hat. The image is to remind us that everyone meets death—rich or poor,” Stephenson said.  

The Catrina image was immortalized (or appropriated, depending on how you see it) by Barbie. In August 2019, Mattel announced a limited edition Día de Muertos Barbie doll dressed as Catrina. It was originally meant to retail for $75 at stores like Target, but an employee at the West Jordan Target said they didn’t have one and she’d never seen one there. 

The doll, dressed in an elaborate black dress, is in high demand. You’re more likely to find it on eBay. In mid-September, three Salt Lake City eBay sellers had it listed for $125-$150. 

Thankfully, the spiritual roots of the day transcend Barbie. Faithful members of the Catholic Church use the day, which is tied to All Saints Day, as a way to enrich their faith. Griselda Bedola works at the Saint Therese of the Child Catholic Church in Midvale. She said the day has a lot of spiritual significance. 

“There is a Mass held that day. All the kids in the Catechism attend and can dress like a favorite saint. Many dress as Saint Therese, the patron saint of our church. Or they dress as an angel, priest, or Holy Mary,” Bedola said. 

Bedola said Halloween isn’t bad, but it’s almost the opposite idea of All Saints Day. “It is important to pray for [those who have died]. We believe that their souls arise more easily or faster to God and Heaven when you pray for them,” Bedola said. 

Many are familiar with the Catrina’s traditional skeleton-like face paint, but she’s not meant to scare. “Dressing as a Catrina increases the fun. With the celebration we understand death is going to happen to everybody. Everyone thinks we will cry a lot, but no, it’s a celebration. We can laugh and the Catrina is not scary, it’s for fun,” Bedola said. 

Bedola hadn’t seen the Day of the Dead Barbie, but she said the idea was funny. “It’s just marketing,” she said. 

Despite Catholic ties to the holiday, the celebration is non-denominational. Irene Caso is a spokesperson for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She said the Church “doesn’t have an official position on El Día de Los Muertos” and whether or not members celebrate the holiday. 

Caso pointed to an article by Sally Odenkirk, which was posted on the Church’s Family Search website on July 28, 2019. The article states, “These and other traditions are an important way of keeping families strong as they remember ancestors and their stories. As your family gathers for Día de Muertos, consider activities that will help you remember your family members.”

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