In many cultures, the late fall is a time in which the dead are honored with great ceremony. A wonderful example of this is in Mexico, where Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) celebrations are a joyful and festive part of the season. Rather than being sad and mournful, families go to cemeteries where they honor their loved ones with picnics, colorful altars, and even parades.
You don’t have to be part of the Hispanic community to celebrate the season in this manner, though. Many non-Hispanic Pagans see Samhain as a time to honor their dead with happy remembrance. There are a number of ways you can do this, and incorporate a visit at your family’s cemetery into your Samhain festivities.
Start by cleaning up headstones. Pluck or trim any overgrown grass or weeds from around the gravesite or sites. To clean a headstone, you should be sure to check with the cemetery operators (if you can find them) about any cleaning policies. In general, a good guideline is that if a headstone is made of marble, limestone or or sandstone, you can use water (bring a couple of gallon jugs along) and a SOFT nylon bristle brush.
For older headstones, which may crumble from age when you clean them, water alone may be your best bet. A headstone that is cracked or damaged shouldn’t be cleaned at all, at the risk of causing more damage. Do the best you can with what you’ve got - but for more detail on how conservationists suggest you clean an old stone, read here: Association for Gravestone Studies.
If you'd like to make a grave rubbing of a headstone, read here: How to Make a Grave Rubbing. Keep in mind that you should always follow the rules of the cemetery. Remember that while doing a rubbing usually doesn’t cause damage to headstones, particularly newer ones, there are certain precautions that should be taken. If a stone is worn or crumbling, pass on it. Rubbing an already-damaged stone can cause it to flake and chip to the point where it’s irreparable. Instead, choose stones which are in good condition – the best results come from either polished granite stones or solid slate markers. If there's any doubt about the condition of the stone, don't use it for a rubbing.
Many people like to have an ancestor altar in their homes during the Samhain season, but you can set one up at the cemetery as well. It can be as simple as a few candles, a photo, and some flowers, or more complex. If the grave is an older cemetery, you may want to bring a small flat object to use as an altar - bed trays work well for this - so as not to damage the headstone. Be sure to check with the cemetery for guidelines, if you choose to leave your altar in place after you’ve left. If you do take it with you when you go, be careful to pick up any stray bits and pieces that may have scattered around. Don’t leave a mess behind.
Flowers and colorful ribbons are also a popular addition to headstones during this season - if you have wreaths, feel free to add those as well. In Mexico, another offering is travel items - razors, a bowl of water, and soap are a great addition, because your deceased loved ones can use these items to clean up after their journey.
For more about how different cultures venerate their ancestors, read here: Ancestor Worship. The concept of ancestor worship is not a new one for many Pagans today. Ancient cultures often venerated those who came before them, and even now, in our contemporary society, it’s not uncommon at all to find celebrations that honor the ancestors in a variety of different ways.
Sugar Skulls and Candy Coffins
You can make a batch of Sugar Skulls, which are confectionaries traditionally made at Day of the Dead celebrations. If you’re not sure about how to make them - or don’t feel confident in your own candy-making skills - check at your local Hispanic marketa - they almost always have them in stock in the fall. Another popular item is the candy or chocolate coffin - again, if you aren’t able to make them, an alternative is to use small boxes made of cardstock or lightweight cardboard to create coffins, and fill them with candy, trinkets, and tiny skeletons.
For many people who celebrate Day of the Dead, a huge part of the day involves a meal. You can pack up a picnic supper, and visit your family at the cemetery while you eat. Some ideas you might try:
- Bring loaves of sweet, dessert breads, which are traditional in many cultures, as a Samhain offering.
- If you know a particular family member really loved a favorite dish, include that as part of your picnic supper.
- Be sure to bring an extra plate for each of your beloved dead - they are with you in spirit, and should be offered a seat at the table (or picnic blanket).
- You can either make your picnic formal and serious, like the Dumb Supper, or joyous and fun - it's up to you.
- Consider singing songs - if you have drums or a guitar, bring them along, and after you’ve eaten, sing your family’s favorite tunes to serenade your ancestors. If you know the traditional folk songs of your family’s culture, this is a great time to share them - and if you don’t know them, now is a good time to learn and pass on the traditions.