Note—Even amid the Coronavirus pandemic with its soaring death toll and sturm und drang of the election, the drumbeat of Blacks murdered by police continues. Those of us in McHenry County take note of the near-by Waukegan killing of Marcellis Stinnette and the wounding of his girlfriend Tafara Williams. It brings to mind a Días de los Muertos service four years ago at my church.
That Sunday we, as was then our custom, we observed Días de los Muertos—Days of the Dead—at Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation in McHenry, Illinois. We began more than a decade earlier in our old church building in Woodstock primarily as a way to honor and connect with McHenry County’s large Mexican and Mexican American community with which we were deeply engaged in social justice work. Elaborate care was taken to explain the cultural and religious roots of the observance, describe the customs, and create our own ofrenda—the altar to the dead. To complete the experience, members and friends were invited to add photos and memorabilia of their own dearly departed to the altar and share a comment or memory.
Over the years as we became used to it, less time was spent each year connecting the holiday to its roots. After all, we knew the story by now, didn’t we? Despite the traditional Mexican decorations—the sugar skulls, papel picado cut-out tissue banners, votive and other candles, and marigold blooms—more and more the services concentrated on honoring the memories of our own dead—a kind of therapeutic and cathartic sharing that brought tears to our eyes and perhaps a faint glimpse of mortality.
The ofendra at the Tree of Life UU Congregation.
Many Unitarian Universalist congregations have adopted similar annual observances. We have discussed before the controversies and challenges of cultural appropriation or a sincere yearning to learn and grow through wide varieties of spiritual practice. We will leave that aside in the present case.
I had planned to bring a photo of my father that year, but it was a groggy Sunday morning for me after sacrificing sleep to watch my beloved Cubs lose a World Series Game and then working my usual overnight shift at the gas station/convenience store down the road. I was half way to McHenry before I realized that I left my picture beside my computer in the study. Oh well, I thought. This year I will just sit back and listen.
And so I did. As usual the photos, trinkets, and momentous to lay on the ofrenda were accompanied by touching, wistful, tragic, and even funny memories. But as the parade to the altar continued my mind drifted to those unmemorialized—those beyond our immediate circles and family. Perhaps it was because that year, thankfully, I had no new loss of my own to process. I mentally peered over the horizon.
Almost without realizing it, I found myself moving to the pulpit. As if another voice was speaking through my body, I said something like this, laid single marigold blossom, and retreated in surprised silence to my seat.
Later, at home, I tried to form what I said into a poem.
Space on the Ofrenda for the Dead Who Didn’t Matter
November 1, 2016
What can I lay upon the ofrenda
for the Day of the Dead
when I do not know a favorite food,
have a fond story to tell,
memory to share,
faded photo in a tarnished frame,
when I have already
forgotten the name?
Not someone I should care about,
no kin or clansman,
no old romance or childhood pal
no skin off our noses
alive or dead,
strangers to the party for the dead
on our altar and shrine.
No one, after all, who really mattered
We are assured
if a stray thought wanders
off the reservation
and feels a moment of
That guy, the fat father, car broken down
on a nice White road,
a real bad dude
to a cop in a helicopter.
Or the other one reading in his own car
in his own parking lot,
some kind of disabled head case,
drilled as his wife screamed
“He doesn’t have a gun.”
Or that Native American girl
in her own apartment with her
four year old child,
sad and suicidal
and obliged in an instant.
None of them mattered,
no concern of mine, yours or anyone,
all deserving to die
at righteous, blameless hands
for being Black or Brown
and a fill-in-the blank threat.
I have already forgotten their names,
if they had one,
and there will be others
to temporarily take their places.
Why crowd our gay ofrenda
for the likes of them?
Well, if I really must,
just one marigold
over there behind
and grandpa’s airplane bottle
of Jack Daniels.
And keep quiet about it.