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Dead among us

Dia de los Muertos allows space to grieve and honor lives well-lived

DeJon and Ashley Knapp with the shrine they built to their mother, Dee Wells, at the Dia de los Muertos celebration at Living Arts in 2013

After college, DeJon Knapp began making shrines for her mother in vintage suitcases. 

“When I was living somewhere else, if I came home for Thanksgiving, I could open up a suitcase at my grandmother’s house, and there’s mom,” Knapp said smiling. “And she can have Thanksgiving with us, or on her birthday my grandmother, my sister and our mom in a suitcase could get together and hang out.”

This is the fourth year Knapp has built an altar for the Dia de los Muertos event at Living Arts. Latin American cultures celebrate Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) as a time each year when the gates of heaven open at midnight and the spirits of the deceased reunite with their loved ones. Families build altars—including personal items, candles, salt, candy, tequila, food and incense—to remember those they’ve lost. According to the tradition, in exchange for these gifts, the happy spirits provide protection, good luck and wisdom to their families. The event brings the families and community together to grieve and celebrate the deceased. 

Knapp and her sister, Ashley, take part to honor the life of their mother, Dee Wells, who died in 2000. Their grandmother Libby Long helped guide the girls through their grief. They had grown up around small shrines Long created in memory of other family members.

“My grandmother actually had four children, and only one of them was still alive when my mother died … ” Knapp said. “There were all of these pictures of dead people and their clothing; … it was always so normal.”

American culture doesn’t allow much space for the dead. Father David Medina of Tulsa’s St. Francis Xavier Church said that in Mexican culture, the grieving process is more open for sharing tears and talking about when loved ones were alive. On Dia de los Muertos, living family members welcome the deceased back among them.  

“There is that sense that by burying them, that’s not the end of the relationship,” Medina said. “We can continue the relationship, because some day we will experience that death. The more we talk about our painful experience, the more we heal. The process of building or just thinking about building the altar is therapy.”

“I do think that if it weren’t for participating in the Day of the Dead in this way, I wouldn’t be where I am at in the grief process or in celebrating the memory of my mother.

In the U.S., expressions of grief are often met with anti-depressants and expectations like, “Why are you not over this yet?” Knapp said. But it’s okay to keep talking about the deceased and even bring joy into the celebration of their lives. 

“It really is healthy for my sister and I to pull out all those pictures of her and cry about things and laugh about things and make her favorite foods and hear other people talking about her,” she said. “… They really are brought to life, in a sense, that night. To have complete strangers say their name again, it’s really bizarre.”

For Knapp, the shrines also help bridge a disconnect between the past and present. 

“It’s weird when you have someone that meant so much to you and shaped so much of who you are, and then they’re not here anymore,” she said. “And for the rest of your life suddenly there are more people in your life who have no idea, maybe even that you had a mom that died, much less who she was as person or how she influenced you.”

In March, Long passed away from lung cancer. Knapp’s family had talked openly about death and even joked about what items would be included in her grandmother’s altar. Although they’d hoped for a different outcome, Knapp and her sister are including both their mother and grandmother in the altar this year. 

“It will be this cool experience where they’re together, finally,” Knapp said. 

Knapp tries not to get hung up on the fact that we’re all going to die, but she wonders how people will remember her. She knows it’s not everyone’s style to build shrines and talk about death. But for her, Dia de los Muertos adds up to something transcendent of the iconic face paint and flowers on the surface of the celebration.  

“Every year, it’s a little more closure and a little more acceptance,” she said. “I do think that if it weren’t for participating in the Day of the Dead in this way, I wouldn’t be where I am at in the grief process or in celebrating the memory of my mother. It definitely has served as a valuable tool for how to process this.”

The Dia de los Muertos altars are available to view Oct. 27 through Nov. 1 at Living Arts, 307 E. M.B. Brady Street. The Dia de los Muertos Arts Festival takes place Nov. 1 from 3 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Admission is $5, and kids 12 and under get in free.

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