It hurts when the people we love leave us; death unexpected and unjust afflicts and touches us, and it appalls us how dignity could have been denied to death and to the dead in both Gulag and Auschwitz in the 20th century. And it perplexes us that in the 21st century the “mare nostrum” [the Mediterranean Sea], sea of cultural and human exchange, is becoming a cemetery.
What makes us human is that we bury our people worthily, not toss “the mortal remains” of the creatures of the God of Life to the dunghills and landfills. Culture began; we began to be human, when the death of a member of the species was mourned for the first time, when the loss of an equal and a neighbor was experienced with grief and shock.
Celebrating the Day of the Dead is an act of justice for the dead. The dead also have rights and it is good to recognize them. We live in a culture that extinguishes the past and clouds the future and remains in an empty emotional presentism. To celebrate and remember those who have gone before us is to deny death the last word; it is to affirm that Life is the definitive word. To remember those with whom we have lived together and have made it possible for us to live, gives roots and anchors to our daily lives. The dead have a right to be thanked for their life.
Not to look death in the face, ignore it, blot it out from our daily lives, and make it invisible is to lose one’s humanity. It is to deceive oneself about the terrible human condition; life itself is trivialized, and it ends up not being worth anything. When death is consumed daily in the news, only fleeting fits of moodiness that lead nowhere are triggered, or at the most a sterile resignation to what is.
In one of the shortest verses in the Gospels (Jn 11:35) we are told: “Jesus wept.” Jesus is moved and shocked at the death of his friend Lazarus. In the face of death empty words have no place, and Jesus does the most human thing possible before death which rends friendship, puts an end to the closeness of the person beloved and leads us to shudder at the invasive loneliness and the grief that brings profound sadness: weep.
He who weeps is Jesus of Nazareth and with these tears he buries his pain and the death of Lazarus in the bowels of the Compassionate One. On the Day of the Dead we mourn again and we celebrate in the Eucharist those who have gone before us. That Jesus who did not shirk death leads us to live without cynicism or self-deception. Death is there but those tears of Jesus are the tears of the God-with-us who continues to strengthen us to live lucidly, and live with the hope that he who has the last word is
“the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; and he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” (Lk 20: 37-38)
By Toni Catalá sj