There is something truly wonderful happening in the Halloween aisles of Target.

Stay with me.

Last year was the first time I began to notice Dia de los Muertos décor mixed in the mummy tablecloths and witch aprons, but this year it is everywhere. Unbeknownst to the executives at Target, they are putting the hallow back in Halloween.

Book of Life

I’ve never been a Christian who has had a problem with Halloween. I know there is an alternative subculture for the day where you go to a “Fall Festival” at church instead of Trick or Treating. With all of the signifiers for evil (devil costumes, sexy witches, and vampire dads), I can see why some might presume that darkness must surely be afoot. And perhaps, they are right. Of course, one hopes that Satan is more creative than to show up in a costume actually dressed as himself. Whatever the case, getting Twix bars from my neighbors with my 4 year old “giraffe” has been my happiest version of October 31st.

Still, I do understand the urge to view Halloween through a lens of faith. Which is precisely why I love Dia de los Muertos. If you aren’t familiar, Dia de los Muertos or “The Day of the Dead” is a traditional Mexican holiday when the community of the dead is understood as being among the living, sometimes in a very literal way. Loved ones are remembered through prayer, memorials, and sometimes, their actual skulls are dug up and paraded around town.

dancing skeletonWhile this may sound a little macabre to our “deathless” culture, Dia de los Muertos is actually celebrated in conjunction with the church’s beloved All Souls and All Saints Day because they fit together so beautifully. In the church tradition, we think of All Souls and All Saints as days to remember the Christians (in our family and in the wider community) who have gone on before us. And while I wish I could be writing an article about how awesome it is that Target has All Souls Day decorations, I am fairly certain they wouldn’t be nearly as moving as the sugar skulls and boldly dressed dancing skeletons that Dia de los Muertos décor employs.

Stunning decorations aside, I’m so into this whole Day of the Dead thing for one reason: Anything, and I do mean anything, that holds up the reality of life and death in front of us is an improvement. Culturally, we run screaming away from death because we believe it is forbidding and mysterious. Surely, with enough exercise, we can all outrun our hearts from stopping? Maybe with enough medicine we can outlive even the worst illnesses?

American Halloween has not done death any favors. I’m always astonished to see fake decorative cemeteries in people’s front lawns this time of year. Every time I see one, it occurs to me that it’s been way too long since I’ve been in an actual graveyard with actual dead bodies. And to be honest, Grim Reapers push me over the edge. It’s like we get right up to the line of having an actual moment to see death in our midst, but we haul out a silent guy with a farming implement and a judge’s robe to do the job. Seriously? Death is not some underworld experience. It is full of beauty and sadness, of memory and hope. Despite our best efforts to deny this fact, death is so fiercely tucked into life.

the grim reeper visits a guruDeath has never been more inappropriate, more rude, or more hidden away than it is now. My least favorite question when someone has died is, “Are you okay?” Nope. And I’m not going to be. We want people to forget about those who have died and to move on. Not because we are callous and unfeeling but because we simply do not want to talk about dying. Yet when we deny ourselves the privilege and pain of experiencing death, we miss out on so much.

For better or worse, we talk about death pretty frequently in our household. This has not been intentional. But since my husband and I are both clergy, death is a reality we face on a sometimes weekly basis. Recently I told our four year old that we were going to go to a funeral at a church downtown and with a total deadpan expression he looked up at me and said, “Who died this time?” I wouldn’t say we are better than those who never talk to their kids about mortality. I just feel lucky that we don’t really have a choice.

Halloween has always been about joy and the warmth of family for me. And Dia de Los Muertos pushes it to its natural end. In the story of Dia de los Muertos we are told to (literally) pull the skeletons out of the closet and blow them a kiss. The day gives us permission to mourn and love those we miss all over again.

The Day of the Dead tells us it is okay to remember your grandmother all these years after she has died. Because you miss her and you love her. You can take comfort in the fact that she has gone on to heaven before you. And if you’re really feeling honest about the temporal nature of our bodies, you can take comfort in the knowledge that you will join her there when you die. Because, of course, you will.

SkeletonSo bake that cake your Memaw always made. Eat a piece and cry. Pull out a photo of her and show it to your kids. Who cares if they never met her? They get to meet her now through the love and hope of your eyes.

When my own grandmother died two years ago I remember agonizing over what details to to share with our then 2 year old son. So I told him simply that she died and then asked him if he knew what that meant. And despite anything ridiculous I had said as a parent about death, our 2 year old child gave me such comforting words. He told me, “Mama, being dead is when you get in a sailboat and go home to Jesus.”

In the spirit of Halloween, All Souls, and the incredibly beautiful Dia de los Muertos, let’s celebrate and remember those people who have gone on before us. And let’s talk about death. Not as some ever-looming terror clad in a mummy costume, but as a homecoming and completion of a life that was and is full of love.

Happy Halloween, all you beloved skeletons out there.