Goodbye, hello

A Día de los Muertos service at the Unitarian Univeralist Society leaves this writer with a sense of shared community

<i>Día de los Muertos </i>can create a more lighthearted atmosphere than the usual mournful ceremonies for those who’ve passed away.

Día de los Muertos can create a more lighthearted atmosphere than the usual mournful ceremonies for those who’ve passed away.

It was no ordinary Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento. On this October morning, we celebrated Día de los Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead.

In place of the usual sermon, the minister told the story of his sister’s passing and his Buddhist pilgrimage to leave her ashes in a floating pyre of marigolds.

Then we invited the dead to join us.

People in the congregation called out the name of a loved one who had died. The speaker echoed the name, and everyone chanted “presente.” We chanted from folding chairs under colorful flags in a beautiful, circular chapel of polished wood and beveled, etched glass. Sunlight filled the room, dancing across a bouquet of lilies.

Through occasional tears and constant reverence, the names went on, each welcomed with “presente.” It was eerie, yet touching.

The frail, gray-haired woman next to me whispered, “Oh, I knew her,” after one of the names called throughout the small room. The children sat in silence, swept away with the rest of us to another dimension where the dead were with us, brought forth to the present by the strength of their memory in our hearts.

I had stepped into a common and casual church service, unaware of the experience awaiting. The theme of stories began immediately, with a mother’s tale of family ties. Her voice was warm and genuine as she welcomed all, whether they had arrived “on a broomstick or a magic carpet.” She said, “We come together to deepen our lives and be a force for healing in the world.”

Everyone took a moment to shake hands and greet one another in sparks of conversation that drowned out the speaker’s call for a song. The piano’s melody swelled, and we sang a gentle hymn of the colors we see in our world, the first two verses in English and the rest in Spanish, the first allusion to the Mexican ritual to follow.

I remained the detached visitor as the music progressed into mellow and meditative ambience. I watched as a collection basket circulated for this month’s elected cause, Family Promise, an interfaith program to provide shelter to local homeless families. There was no dismissal to a children’s program that day. The special Day of the Dead ceremony was shared by all generations.

When the calling and chanting began and I heard the soft crack of voices through tears, I was moved from detachment to connection with the moment. The solemn and emotional ritual is one of peaceful and happy remembrance rather than grief. The peace carries into the friendly greetings and conversation after the service, conveying a sense of harmony and community.

We had worshiped together, though no one put the object of our worship into words: no prayers to any deity, no references to gods of any religion. The colorful flags overhead bore the symbols of many religions. Perhaps the object of worship varied from person to person around the room.

Everyone smiled and greeted me as I made my way toward the beveled-glass doorway. Strangers by name, and perhaps by faith as well, we were connected through our experience of Día de los Muertos. I shook hands with a clean-cut man who introduced himself as a family minister.

He commented about the unique morning’s service. “But then,” he added, “It is frequently different here.”