Dia de los Muertos: A celebration of death and life | PostIndependent.com

Dia de los Muertos: A celebration of death and life

Caitlin Row
Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, will be celebrated Sunday and Monday, Nov. 1-2.
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto


A 2012 Free Press story reported on three supposedly haunted locations in Colorado’s Grand Valley.

What was formerly Dolce Vita and Loree’s (336 Main St., Grand Junction) offers a long, storied past of hauntings in the building — pots that jump of hooks in the kitchen, ice buckets flying to the floor, eerie feelings, and people who aren’t really there.

Rick Crippen, who formerly owned Dolce Vita, said the haunting stories didn’t just start with them. Previous owners reported seeing a short, older woman wearing a black veil as often as once a month. Crippen also remembers a story about a little girl seeing the ghost of “a little old man.” The girl was walking with her mother and saw the man sitting in a chair. She asked her mom why he was sitting there, but the woman couldn’t see anyone ... because no one was there.

Local historian Priscilla Mangnall recalled ghost stories about Copeco Dance Hall as well, which was formerly located between Fruita and Grand Junction, at 22 and J roads, before it was torn down.

“There was a house, a big structure there, mostly cement,” Mangnall said. “I grew up in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, and this place was all graffiti-ed up. We’d go up there to hang out and drink beer, and there was this little hole in the basement. Rumors had it that someone had hung themselves (in there). That was our ghost story. Everyone’s got a little story.”

Roice-Hurst Humane Society’s old location at 3320 D 1/2 Road may be the most haunted structure yet.

In an October 2007 Free Press article, staff writer Marija B. Vader reported strange sightings at the animal shelter — doors were found inexplicably open and cats (that were thought to be caged) would be found wandering around.

“They chalk it up to Sarah, their resident spirit who occupies the building at night, keeping company with the cats and dogs,” Vader wrote. “Sarah wears a high-collar, white lacy blouse with a long skirt, turn-of-the-century dress. Her long hair is tied up in a bun. She’s friendly. It also could be the spirit of the little girl who also ‘lives’ at the shelter. The girl likes to giggle and play with the dogs and puppies and sometimes tugs at the employees’ hair in an effort to get them to come play with her. She’ll sometimes leave gooey hand-prints on the glass doors, child-height. At the shelter, toilets sometimes flush on their own. Dogs and cats watch activity that humans can’t see. Employees have heard dragging noises up and down the hallways.”

To read Caitlin Row’s full story, head to www.gjfreepress.com and search for it online.

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, isn’t meant to be scary like Halloween. Rather, this Latin American holiday celebrates death as a part of life, with roots in pagan Aztec lore. It also pays homage to deceased loved ones through family ritual, often connected to the Catholic Church.

And though Day of the Dead celebrations coincide this weekend, Nov. 1-2, with America’s spooky traditions — like trick-or-treating and haunted houses — its purpose is very different.

“It’s a celebration to honor your deceased people, to remember them with happiness and to welcome them to our homes one more time,” Colorado Mesa University Spanish professor Dr. Mayela Vallejos-Ramirez said. “We normally think about death as something scary or morbid, but not for these celebrations. Latin Americans laugh about death; it’s a fusion that we have with the Spaniards, because also the Spaniards laugh at death.

“It’s a part of the Latin American traditions and idiosyncrasies, their relation with death and life.”

Visiting and decorating cemeteries is one major component of the holiday, retired CMU mythology professor Dr. Luis Lopez said. He grew up celebrating Day of the Dead with his Hispanic family in Albuquerque, N.M.

“In my family, we didn’t build an altar as it’s often done now, but we did go visit the grave,” he noted. “Tombs are decorated with objects to be given and fed, but the very important thing is there are always marigolds there, the flower of the dead. Quite often, there’s bread put down, and lots of tissue paper, decorations, incense and candles.”

Funny stories are often told about dead family members at their gravesites, Lopez explained. And if a person who died had a favorite item, it was taken to the cemetery, too. For instance, if Uncle Juan loved to drink tequila, family members would bring a bottle to his grave. Or, if there was a favorite book or smoking pipe, that would be brought.

“People go a day before and clean cemeteries and tombs, decorating those tombs very beautifully with any flower you can find, artificial or natural,” Vallejos-Ramirez said. “People, in many countries like Chile and Mexico, go to the cemetery with picnic baskets, bring favorite dishes and they eat with their deceased there.”

Other items, like sugar skulls and skeletons, are also used to decorate graves and homes.

“Skeletons mean death, and death is not to be feared,” Lopez said. “In other cultures, skeletons scare you. For us, it’s a remembrance that we will die. It’s not necessarily a sad thing. It frightens some people, but once they learn what’s going on it’s not a frightening thing.”

For Vallejos-Ramirez, who grew up in Costa Rica before coming to the U.S., her traditions include honoring deceased family members at their graves, but also building a Day of the Dead altar in her home.

Family altars are normally white. “That signifies purity, that the person is on another level now,” she explained, and a cross sits in the center. There will also be “a saint or two, depending on a person’s inclination for the saints.” And other items are required, too, like salt, a glass of water, incense, candles and marigolds.

The glass of water is placed out for the spirits because the tradition says that “after they make a trip from the other dimension, they are thirsty,” Vallejos-Ramirez added. And marigold petals are used to make a road from a home’s front door to the altar “so a soul can find its way back to the house.” Favorite items, like perfume or tequila, are placed at the altar as well, along with photos of the dead.

And though Day of the Dead is traditionally thought of as a Mexican tradition, this autumn holiday pops up throughout Central and South America. Plus, it’s even gaining in popularity across the U.S.

“People want to learn more about it,” Vallejos-Ramirez said.

This story previously ran in the Free Press on Nov. 1, 2013. Look for it online.

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