Day of the Dead and Death Well Lived

By Mary Bradford,excerpt from Bury the Dead:
Stories of bury the deadDeath and Dying, Resistance and Discipleship

The dead come back whether we invite them or not.
They are our friends, our brothers and sisters, our parents and ancestors, our children, our lovers.
They bring memories, insight, blessing and good fortune.
They travel a long, long way.
Who would greet them with a dark house and an empty table?
Show them you remember them. Put out the things they loved,
even the things they loved to death.
Don’t be so judgmental. You can’t reform them now.
Fill the bellies they no longer have.
Refresh the skin that cracked into a fine husk
and drifted away in the desert.

Give the old man his glasses. Maybe he will find his eyes.
Put away your sadness. It sours the music.
Hear the music and dance with the quick, the light, the dry-boned.
One autumn the feast will be for us.

From Chaplain Ray Kelleher’s handwritten notes about Día de los Muertos/Day of the Dead. Ray was an extraordinary hospice chaplain who died unexpectedly in July 2009.
Skeletons are everywhere. They push baby carriages, wear elaborately decorated costumes, dance at weddings, and play pianos in the plazas. On November first and second the festivities of Día de los Muertos/Day of the Dead are in full swing in Mexico. Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead) and calaveras (sugar skulls) are prominent in the bakeries and families decorate graves and set up altars, often setting out favorites foods for their loved ones. Paths of marigold petals are scattered to help the dead find their way home since many believe that the veil between this world and the next is thinner during this time. It is important that the dead feel welcome when they come to visit.

Indigenous origins overlaid with the Christian observances of All Saints and All Souls Day make Día de los Muertos the most reverent irreverent festival you could possibly imagine. Instead of shrinking away from death, it is honored and celebrated in a light-hearted, very real way. The fear of death—which is perhaps the ultimate human fear—is brought into the open and people dance with it. They also cry with it, acknowledging the pain and loss. It is an affirmation of the belief that this life is just one part of a mysterious journey that continues on after our death. To dance with death in this manner implies a trust in a benevolent God, one who desires that our love and connectedness continue long after our lives here have ended.

Día de los Muertos is gaining in popularity in the United States, and that’s a good thing. We can use a blueprint for how to celebrate the joyful, painful, crazy complexity of death.

I’ve heard it said that we don’t truly die until there is no one left to remember us. So each year, as October turns into November, I remember the dead—my dead. I have no idea if they actually come to visit during that magical time, the days of All Saints and All Souls/Día de los Muertos—I just know that I feel their presence, so somehow they do live on in me. I talk to them as I set up an altar and lay out their treats. The conversation varies from year to year, but here’s how it went the year we lost Ray:

Grandma Rose (Nonna Rosinella), here’s your milky tea, just the way you like it. Ti voglio bene.

Tim, bagel-maker and first love, I brought you a new age bagel—they make them in all sorts of crazy flavors these days. You are forever present in the mountain.

Dad, here’s a shot of Drambuie and a Lotto ticket (which didn’t win—sorry.). See you in the stars.

And then there’s Ray: still can’t quite believe that “this autumn the feast is for him.” I don’t know what his favorite foods were, but I do know that this is the guy who once convinced a gullible colleague that he was giving up bathing with water because of worldwide water shortages, that he was instead going to bathe only using Purell Hand Sanitizer. He called it the Purell Full-Body Wash System.

So Ray, because we still miss your delightfully warped sense of humor, you get a bottle of hand sanitizer. This Purell’s for you, my friend!


Mary Bradford is a hospice social worker in Tacoma, Washington. She lived for ten years in Brownsville, TX, where she taught in a Catholic school, helped establish La Posada soup kitchen, and assisted Central American refugees. Upon returning to the Northwest, she became the director of Nativity House, a drop-in center in Tacoma, WA, and later worked as a prison chaplain and a pastoral social justice worker at St. Leo Parish, where she is currently a member. Mary writes a bilingual blog (; she is deeply grateful to be part of a community of friends and spiritual soulmates—many of whom are affiliated with St. Leo’s or the Tacoma Catholic Worker—who work for justice while striving to maintain a sense of humor. Mary considers her hospice work to be reverse midwifery and she feels blessed to be able to enter into people’s lives at such a holy, vulnerable time.


Bury the Dead: Stories of Death and Dying, Resistance and Discipleship is a beautiful book of human stories of struggling to die well in a culture of death. We highly recommends you get your hands on a copy of this book. You can order the book here.



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