Remembering Our Pets on the Day of the Dead
While most people think of the end of October in terms of Halloween and candy, in my house it’s also time to celebrate an additional holiday: Dia de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead.
These ghoulish holidays bear some relationship to each other. The oldest incarnation is thought to have roots in the Gaelic festival of Samhain. On this day, celebrated October 31 or November 1, the boundary between summer and winter means the veil between the worlds thins and spirits could more easily enter our world.
As Christianity spread into Europe the celebrations became intertwined. All Saints Day and All Souls Day are celebrated November 1 and 2 to commemorate the departed. In Mexico, the Catholic tradition was combined with the traditional Mexican holiday of the Day of the Dead to become Dia de los Muertos.
Presided over by La Calavera Catrina, the Lady of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos is a bright festival full of sugar skulls, food, and color; a day for people to gather and remember those who have left this earth. It’s actually a two days long holiday. On November 1, the Dia de los Inocentes, or Day of the Innocents, children and infants are honored. On November 2, the celebration includes departed adults.
Given this particular holiday’s evolution over time, it makes sense that we should feel free to co-opt the parts that make sense to us and make it meaningful. With so few opportunities for people to formally remember departed pets, I’ve taken to using the day of the innocents to memorialize the many animals who have enriched my life throughout the years.
On November 1, when the jack-o’-lanterns are snuffed out and the Halloween bowl filled with nothing but wrappers, I’ll be turning my attention to my Dia de los Muertos altar, covered in marigolds and pictures. Taffy the Lhasa, Nuke the coonhound, Mulan and Emmett the Goldens, Kekoa the Labrador, Callie and Apollo the kitties, Ariel the guinea pig; they all have a place in my heart and my memory, a role played in my life and that of my family. Why shouldn’t they be honored?
It’s a lovely way for the children to participate as well. They will be making dog and cat treats to leave out, and probably a few human-friendly delicacies as well. And when we share our memories and maybe a laugh or a tear, we’ll also be reinforcing the lesson that gone never means forgotten, which will help ease us into November 2, when we will again gather to remember my mother.
Just one more way that pets teach us so much.
Dr. Jessica Vogelsang