Every year, the Burton Barr Library, the main hub of the Phoenix Public Library system, dedicates its first-floor art gallery to a Dia De Los Muertos exhibit. The exhibit presents altars made by locals in remembrance of family, friends, and others who inspired and influenced the altars’ creators before dying. This year’s exhibit features not only tributes to artists like Jim Henson, Salvador Dali, Sylvia Plath, and Shel Silverstein, but also memorials to grandparents, cousins, and co-workers.
The brightly-colored altars contain images and objects of meaning to the departed, from books they loved to food they liked, from memorabilia of their favorite sports teams to images and quotes that meant something to them. Every altar has an artist’s statement about what the departed meant to them on a very personal level. These are intimate statements, and one cannot help but be moved by their candor and affection.
Traditional motifs of Dia De Los Muertos abound: multi-colored paper marigolds, candy skulls, and sculptures of people and animals painted black and then painted over with skeletons. The exhibit always contains a piece where people have written names and messages on bright paper butterflies and hung them on lines stretched below a colorful arch of paper marigolds. I imagine the butterflies are symbols of transformation, and also flight and rising above—a deep contrast to the familiar Halloween imagery of graveyards and haunted houses where spirits remain trapped.
Halloween holds little appeal for me. Halloween focuses on fright and creepiness. Halloween imagines the dead come back to haunt us. Halloween portrays the dead as tortured souls come back from the grave to share their torment with us. Perhaps that is one way people confront their fears of death.
But Dia De Los Muertos imagines the dead quite differently. Rather than the dark and gloomy colors of Halloween, Dia De Los Muertos revels in color and brightness. Dia De Los Muertos imagines the dead continuing to do the things they loved to do in life. The dead joyously ride bicycles, make art, love their pets, and play musical instruments. Los Muertos are quite happy, and the day celebrates the joy and love they felt in life—and that we felt for them.
So, I like to make an annual trip to Burton Barr to see this exhibit. I always find it profoundly moving in the way it celebrates those who have died. Though tinged with sadness, the altars focus on why we loved those we have lost, and what brought them joy while they were alive. This year, I took my camera phone to snap a few shots for this blog, but then had second thoughts.
Instead, I took one of many copies of the Lakota prayer, scanned below, from one of the altars. I did not know Carole, but she worked in the public library system here, and worked in libraries all her adult life. Her multi-level altar—created collaboratively by friends, family, and co-workers—includes a diorama of Carole in skeletal regalia seated in a comfortable chair, watching her favorite sports team on television, surrounded by shelves of books and the pets she loved in this life. Above this diorama is a poem composed for her. It tells of her life and her eventual death from cancer. It mourns her passing but celebrates her life. If, as the mythology of Dia De Los Muertos says, the dead do gain permission one day each year to visit their living loved ones, then I have no doubt Carole would be touched to find the exhibit made in her honor. I found the following verse much more meaningful than any spooky and scary Halloween imagery.