Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Los Dias de los Muertos: Dancing Skeletons, Smiling Death's Heads, the Grateful and the Dead

It's autumn and the fragrant chill of mortality is in the air. The scent of the overripe and the rotten, fermenting in the bright, brief sunlight, mixes with clean scent of fresh blood from the recently slaughtered and sweetly drying grains. Increasingly over-filled cupboards stand in stark contrast to an ever-more barren landscape. Bitter north winds tear across desolate fields, the encroaching darkness trailing behind them, a herald of the coming winter.

...That is if this were the the American Great Plains of the 1800s. As this is 2010 and the Yummish Council is currently located in the extremely climatically stable San Francisco Bay Area, the harvest season is more accurately recognized by the addition of overpriced ornamental gourds and under-priced, oversized bags of candy to grocery store shelves, back-to-school sales, and the beginning of the football and hockey seasons. (Go Red Wings!)

Nevertheless, this time of transition from the endless days of summer to the darkness and deprivation of winter has become a traditional occasion for people to reflect upon and celebrate death. Halloween, All-Saints Day, All-Souls Day, El Dia de los Muertos, and countless other fall and harvest festivals all around the world celebrate the glory of death in some way; from lighting candles to lighting bonfires, from singing simple songs to making a riotous cacophony intended to (literally) wake the dead. (For more harvest/death rituals, we recommend Primitive Mythology from Joseph Campbell's Masks of God series.)

“Why?” you might ask, “is the cessation of life something people want to celebrate?”

For the Yummish, the answer is suggested by the question itself. The Yummish are called upon to celebrate all life and recognize death as a part of life – the last part. It is the finale of the film, the closing chapter of the book. Without it, the experience would be wholly unsatisfying. Death brings the gifts of closure and resolution to our lives. It brings structure to our existence – a distinct beginning, middle and end.

Death forces us to see ourselves not as just this one, temporary expression of life, but to identify with something more lasting – a family, a tribe, a country, a species. It encourages us to think beyond our own lifetimes, to strive to pass along as much as we can of what we've gained – genetically, educationally, artistically and spiritually – to those who will follow us.

Because they will die, we love our parents. Because we will die, we love our children.

While the Yummish celebrate Death as a part of the cycle of life, it is important to note that we do not celebrate any specific instance of death*. The end of an individual life -- any life -- is a solemn occasion. Though we might celebrate the beauty of the life of one who has passed, the Yummish take no joy in the death. The end of a life brings only sorrow, while Life Ending is, to us, a glorious mystery. It is a complicated issue and probably explains why we drink as much cheap red wine as we do - cheap red wine historically being the preferred beverage of philosophers, revolutionaries and vagabonds alike.

Today's Exercise: Like the brightly colored sugar skulls of el Dia de los Muertos, let the specter of death remind you of the sweetness and joy of living.

Next: Cocktail Party Official 2010 Endorsements

*The Senior Member of the Yummish Council argues that the following perspective could be an exception to this general rule:

To die, to sleep
No more - and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to - ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished.

One a related note, Bay Beat Sounds will soon be announcing the triumphant return of Thanatoid Jones.

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