Sunday, November 2, 2014

Festa dei Morti: Celebrating the Day of the Dead in Sicily

This year I am a little bit obsessed with the Festa dei Morti. 

In the past I tended to avoid any situation that might force me to think about death.  And a holiday that turned it into a celebration seemed anything but festive. I never got beyond admiring the fun skeleton artwork associated with the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico. I never really tried to understand how such a vibrant, artistic tradition developed, or how people could consider death anything to celebrate at all.

BUT, life changing events have happened to me this year.

My mom passed away in January.

My father in law passed away in June.

This year I have had to face the universal human experience of death.
The deeply heart breaking sorrowful part of experiencing such profound loss.
The healing journey of moving on with living while not letting go of the precious memories of the dead loved ones.
Embracing the at first hard to acknowledge gifts that the passing of a loved one carries for the those of us who continue to live.
I have gained such strength at the loss of my loved ones.
Strength for living.
Strength for following my heart.
Strength for letting go of old beliefs and patterns that hold me back or create negativity.
Strength for letting go of fear.

The tabu I had subconsciously created about death has been lifted and I am no longer scared to talk about it, think about it in a personal kind of way, and question my beliefs.

While I had a somewhat religious upbringing as a child, as an adult I am not religious and I don't think I really internalized any of the religious beliefs I was taught as a child, particularly those concerning death.

I have always felt like a spiritual being, however, and over the years have learned to connect to that part of myself in a personal kind of way.

My interest in exploring my spiritually has increased lately, and I mainly attribute that to motherhood and especially with having confronted death with the loss of my mom.

So, this year, the Festa dei Morti makes complete sense to me.

While every day I carry the memory, spirit and love of my mom inside of me, today I feel a strong desire to participate in the collective gathering that takes place at cemeteries around the world, honoring, celebrating and remembering the dead.

According to Sicilian tradition, this is the day that the ghosts of dead loved ones visit the homes of their families bearing gifts of sweets and toys for children.

The tradition of giving gifts on Christmas is only a few generations old in Sicily, as the Festa dei Morti was the day it was always done.

Special sweets are also baked and consumed all over the island at this time of year.

And of course, the cemeteries fill up with families who gather around the graves of their dead loved ones, bearing love, fresh flowers, and a spirit of remembrance.

We visited the small cemetery close to my home to pay our respects to my father-in-law's grave.

The cemetery was full of families, mingling, cleaning off graves, bearing bright yellow flowers.
The energy was peaceful, beautiful and rather celebratory.

For my mom, I have no grave to visit (she wanted to be cremated and I have some of her ashes here with me in Sicily).

So instead, in her honor, I partook in the Mexican tradition of constructing an altar, a place to fill with gifts for the souls of the dead loved ones who come to visit us on this day: candles, food, sweets, flowers, and of course the fanciful skulls that have come to symbolize this holiday in Mexico.

An imaginary Day of the Dead altar.
You can check out more of my work here.

My own version of a Day of the Dead altar is an imaginative drawing.

I loved dedicating time to this drawing over the last week.

Each line, color and shape represents an offering from my heart to my mom and my other loved ones who are no longer here with us.

There was no sadness in the art making, only a feeling of closeness, connection and gratitude for the many gifts I have received from them.

Dare I say it - it was a fun and celebratory creative act of remembrance!

It now makes perfect sense how such a holiday could have come to be.

There is something to be said for inviting the souls of our loved ones to spend some time with us in a specific context of offering and gratitude.

I am sure I have more to explore and learn here, but for now I feel blessed and at peace for I have done my part in my own way.


  1. This was so poignant, Karen. Thank you for sharing it with us. It's been just over two years since I lost my Mom. I share many of your feelings. It is amazing how a spirit can survive through love and memory and continue to nurture us from afar.

    1. Hi Karen, it is nice to share experiences! Thank you.

  2. I don't find the button "like" on blogspot :/ so I write here "I liked it" :)

    1. Thank you so much! You can follow on my facebook fan page too if you'd like :-) (see link above). There you will find a like button!


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