Once a year throughout central and southern Mexico, cemeteries come alive. Friends and relatives elaborately decorate grave sites with colorful flower garlands and bright paintings. Altars are erected in homes honoring loved ones who have died, photographs and toys take their places next to burning candles, flowers and incense. Favorite foods of the deceased simmer throughout the day and are then placed at the altars. El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, is a happy occasion, when departed souls are allowed to return to earth for one day to visit friends and family. According to this tradition with pre-Hispanic roots, the souls of children, who are believed to become angels when they die, arrive on Oct. 31. The souls of adults arrive on Nov. 1, and on Nov. 2 the dead depart again for another year.
For the past seven years, Missoula has hosted The Festival of the Dead, its own counterpart to El Dia de los Muertos. And while the event’s founders and organizers, Bev Glueckert and Mike de Meng, were inspired by the Mexican holiday, they see it more as a point of departure for the festival in Missoula which is referred to as a multi-cultural celebration of life, death and the arts.
The Festival of the Dead is a unique blend of performance, music and theme costumes which Glueckert and de Meng would hope draw specifically on the thoughts and reminiscences of the individuals in this community, people from any number of different cultural backgrounds. The festival begins on Oct. 23 with a performance by Cantanti Missoula, an eight-voice madrigal ensemble at St. Francis Xavier Church. Various other events are scheduled throughout 10-day run and culminate in a community parade for all who wish to participate. The parade will assemble at Circle Square at 5 p.m. on Nov. 2 and stroll up Higgins Ave. to Caras Park where there will be music and dancing which includes Unity Dance and Drum, Danse Macabre and a polyvocal ensemble singing traditional Ghanan folk songs.
It’s fascinating that the date of Oct. 31, Halloween, also known as All Hallows Eve or Samhain in European pagan traditions, would find a parallel half a world away in a tradition that similarly honors one’s ancestors, a day when the dead visit the living. And while all cultures throughout the world honor their dead, some to a greater degree than others, you have to wonder if there is something special about this time of year.
And there is a certain wondrous quality to even the most ordinary trick-or-treat routine, if you were ever out in chill air on those nights as a child, there’s no denying it. The Festival of the Dead offers both a spectacle of pageantry, singing and dancing and an opportunity to celebrate the wonderful mysteries of life, death and the arts in whatever way suits you. For a complete listing of events for the Festival of the Dead, check “Eight Days a Week,” on page 18.