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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
in her own apartment with her
four year old child,
sad and suicidal
and obliged in an instant.
None of them
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
for the likes of them?
Well, if I
just one marigold
over there behind
and grandpa’s airplane bottle
of Jack Daniels.
And keep quiet