In the Hispanic culture, both in Latin America and throughout the U.S. Southwest, death is celebrated on November 2 with magnificent altars as a way of remembering and honoring our deceased loved ones. Many years ago our dear friends from Mexico, the Gottfrieds, created one in honor of the passing of their father. I remember its beauty and reverence. This year, without doubt they will make a magnificent one for their mother, Martha Joy, who recently passed away.
Martha was my mother’s best friend in Mexico. They were practically inseparable. Both were American ex-pats, married to Mexican men, and both had four children each, almost the same ages. Mom misses Martha as well as all the others she has lost. At 96, there aren’t many who have outlived her. Although she clings to life even more strongly now and insists she will make it to 100, death is a constant presence.
For all of us, but particularly those of us with elderly parents, death is something we must face. According to a study on death and dying, Hammes, the author maintains that families need to discuss end-of-life choices with their loved ones. “Research shows that families who are unaware of a patient’s wishes suffer much more stress, anxiety and depression than those who are aware.”
For Mom, suicide is an option. It is not a decision she would take lightly, it is not a case of mental imbalance, nor is it selfish. If she should reach the point where she is in pain or can no longer function, she feels it is her right to end her existence. When her sister, Carolyn, could no longer breathe, she simply quit eating, taking only water. She passed away in less than a month with no pain or agony.
We have discussed Mom’s wishes with her and what she wants done at her passing. She wants to give her body to one of the medical schools in Houston. They’ll probably want to study it to find out how she lived so long!! She doesn’t feel the need for any ceremonies, saying that those are for us, the living.
Perhaps, too often, it is the living who are selfish. We are determined to cling to our loved ones. We demand that our medical practitioners carry out extreme measures, keeping bodies alive with man-made machines. God would have ended the agony long before. What should I have done when Mom nearly bled to death two months ago? She chose to go to the emergency room. Should I have not taken her? Accepted it as God’s will? I don’t know. I took her. Many thousands of dollars later, much of it out of pocket since she doesn’t have Medicare B, she is still with us.
Mom misses her best friends from Mexico. Although she is not Catholic, perhaps I should help Mom make a Day of the Dead Altar for Martha and my father and her sister and the many friends she has lost over the years. The memories have been good ones and I hope writing her autobiography will bring them back.
To make an altar, cover a table with bright colored cloth and place on it: 1) a large photograph of your loved one in the center, 2) water or fruit punch to refresh the spirit of the deceased, 3) Pan de Muerto or “bread of the dead” with a skull or crossbones on top, 4) Salt, as seasoning and for purification, 5) The deceased’s favorite foods, possessions or tools of their trade, 6) Cempasuchitl, the Nahuatl word for “marigolds” which grow and wilt quickly, reflecting the fleeting nature of life, 7) Papel picado– brightly colored tissue paper with cut-out patterns, 8) Sugar skulls or calaveras to light the way for the dead, and 9) Burning copal incense still used in Mexican funerals today. It is a beautiful way to celebrate your loved ones’ life and ease the pain of your loss.
If you haven’t discussed their wishes with your elderly parents, do it. Now.