Elegy for the Day of the Dead

By Mirna Palacio Ornelas

We’re coasting up to the end of October now, and while there’s plenty of Halloween writing prompts, we’re gonna take this a day passed All Hallow’s Eve. I’m talking November 1st and 2nd, Dia de los Muertos. 

Picture by Mirna Palacio Ornelas

Dia de los Muertos

Largely a Mexican tradition with Aztec roots, Dia de los Muertos is a two day event when we remember our loved ones that have passed away. I’m sure you’ve all seen Coco at this point, so I won’t go too much into detail. The basics: our loved ones that have passed away come to visit us in the world of the living during these two days. The main purpose? To party. And I can assure you, there is no kind of border patrol involved (side-eyeing Disney, here). 

Dia de los Muertos is all about celebrating life. We celebrate the lives of the deceased with food, drinks, parties, and games. We celebrate our lives as we move forward in the natural progression of time. And we celebrate the afterlife and love as a community. There’s nothing morbid here. It’s all smiles and cempasúchitl. The food and flowers, of course, are for the spirits.

So while you’re cooking up the pan de dulce, champurrado, mole and molletes, consider mixing it up a little and whip up an elegy for the recently deceased. 

The Elegy

Traditionally, the elegy works through the most common (i.e., normative) way of grieving. The stages of loss – grief, praise, and then acceptance – are captured and invoked in quatrains written in iambic pentameter with an ABAB rhyming scheme. And though it’s not absolutely mandatory to stick to that formula, we’ve seen famous elegies take that form, like Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” and John Milton’s “Lycidas.” 

This elegy, however, framed around a possible ofrenda, will only be celebratory. Think smiles, think laughter, think you only have a few moments to share with this person again. Make them happy. 

Creating the elegy

Step 1: Whose picture are you putting up on the ofrenda this year? Which pictures are you framing and putting up? Describe the wornness of their clothes. 

Step 2: When it comes to the food you’re setting out for them, what will they enjoy most? What do you remember them enjoying the most? Bring in that dish and recreate the smell of it. 

Fun fact: The food that is set out on altars and graves is not for the living to enjoy, but for the visiting spirits of the deceased. The belief is that if you set it out for them and then later come back to try the food, it will no longer have any taste because our noncorporeal visitors will have absorbed the taste. In other words, if the food tastes stale (and there’s a whole other belief that says you shouldn’t eat the food set out for the dead), that’s because the dead have already “eaten” it. 

Step 3: What trinkets are you adding for them to play with? For those adding cigarettes, is there a brand they liked in particular? Zoom in on this person’s hands, how they moved, what they held. 

Step 4: You know your loved one. Death has not separated you. They can still hear you. So bring a smile to their faces, make their wrinkles show again. Tell them a joke, or compliment the way their laughter sounded. They did come to visit you, after all. 

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