Day of the Dead Traveling Spirit

Dia de los Muertos: Transforming Ourselves Upward

Posted by Joseph Dispenza


For Day of the Dead, consider mourning and celebrating the parts of yourself that have died—or need to die.

To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.
- John Henry Newman

For two weeks, a cluster of mom-and-pop vendors in the Plaza Civica in San Miguel de Allende, a few blocks from our house, have been selling human skulls, fruit, bones, plates of food like tamales and enchiladas and chicken molé, and skeletons in coffins—all in pastel colors and made of sugar, and all no larger than the palm of your hand.

These are tokens of Day of the Dead, one of the most solemn and, paradoxically, one of the most cheerful fiestas on the Mexican calendar.
The candied food goes onto home altars; real food, tequila, Coca-Cola, candles, and armloads of orange marigolds and chamomile are taken to the family plot at the cemetery on la Día de los Muertos. They are placed on gravestones with pictures of the departed, and everyone sits and reminisces about—and with—the dead person. All day, with candles blazing, children running around, and people quietly chatting and chuckling, the dead come alive again.

The pervasive religion of Mexico teaches that one lives a good life, and then one goes to heaven to be with God and the angels. But Day of the Dead is about the dead returning to earth and gathering with the living in the most inclusive and complete of family reunions.

The specific Christian feast is All Soul’s Day, directing the faithful to pray for the repose of those who have gone before us into eternity. Its sensibility, though, is pre-Christian, perhaps prehistoric. This is ritual rooted in a tradition that transcends religion, and goes to a kind of universal “earth spirituality.”

We can join in this most mysterious commemoration by internalizing its essence. In this way, Day of the Dead can become for us an occasion for reflecting not only on our own mortality, but on how we can “die” each day to the personal past of ourselves and be reborn into a new, higher sense of Self.

This year for Day of the Dead, I am considering building an altar not to a dead relative, but to myself—the part of me that has already died or needs to die. I am thinking about making an altar for all the dead dreams of the past and for the past itself.

On my own Day of the Dead altar, I will be placing a number of never-fulfilled aspirations, laying them at last to rest. In with the candy skulls and sugar-fruits are going those two manuscripts that never got published, the friendship that never was cultivated and finally died on the vine, the relationship of my early years that somehow never reached a proper closure. Among the photos of my mother and father and brother—all in heaven now—I will be setting the illusion of chatting in a TV studio with Oprah about my newest book, the fantasy of explaining the differences between religion and spirituality to Larry King, and the daydream of impressing Charlie Rose.

There with the candles and marigold petals and the shot-glass of tequila will be my musings about winning the lottery, touring the temples of India, going on a cruise to Alaska, seeing a Shakespeare play at the Old Vic in London, dining on the Orient Express en route from Paris to Istanbul, being recognized by Brad Pitt with a tight handshake and a big bear-hug, flying first-class to Rome.

Into the little sugar coffin I will set my dreams of slipping easily into a pair of size 32 Levi 501s and of swimming laps for 30 minutes without stopping to rest, and of growing two inches taller. Mingled in with the plates of imitation enchiladas I will be laying my regrets over past failures, my irritation over having to wear reading glasses, my frustration with the arrogance of literary agents, my depression over not having been asked to stand up in public and receive the applause of my peers for my obvious and stellar accomplishments, my sinking disappointment that my cousins, all the family I have left, do not stay in closer touch with me.

All these things I am releasing may yet come to pass in my life, but they haven’t happened up to now, and holding onto them in a kind of personal fantasy future only makes me feel sour and brittle. Letting go of them is liberating and, ironically, seems to open up the possibility of having newer, ever better things come flooding into my experience.

The wisdom of Day of the Dead is that all things—us included—have a season; when the season is over, the leaf needs to fall and the spent flower needs to dry up. But its additional wisdom is that the ‘dead’ flower contains a seed that also drops to the ground to become the glorious story of the next season.

And the miracle is that the seed will create not just another flower, but a whole bush of flowers. That is a future—not a fantasy—that we can count on.

About the Author
Joseph Dispenza is a founder of LifePath in San Miguel de Allende. He is the author of several books, including God On Your Own: Finding a Spiritual Path Outside Religion, and is a Spiritual Counselor in private practice.

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4 Responses to “Dia de los Muertos: Transforming Ourselves Upward”

  1. Dawn Simmons says:

    This is beautifully authored and really causes one to take pause and reflect on where we’ve been and where we are going. Thank you for sharing such intimate thoughts with those of us in cyberspace. I will enjoy sharing this with some of my dear friends as well. This takes the “scariness” out of this beautiful custom for me. I will never think of it in the same way.

  2. Dawn Simmons says:

    I want to join my niece, Dawn Simmons to thank you for this moving article concerning this celrbration of the Mexican “Day of the Dead’. I spent that week last November in San Miguel and leared a lot, but this article opened me up to new appreciation. I shall remember my departed in a new way.

    FRieda M Whittington

  3. Alli says:

    Hi Joseph! I love this article. It really gives new meaning to the holiday for me. I’m going to work on my alter and let go of all that icky jewelry career stuff I’ve been letting hang around. I love you.

  4. Primo Ibarra says:

    todo suena muy acertado…. y desde la perspectiva escrita, parece
    aplicar a lector que en su momento lo disfruta cuando lentamente viaja en el tiempo mientras sus labios internos pronuncia cada letra.

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