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This last weekend, the streets were awash with blood-spattered zombies and drunken ghouls. Elaborately carved pumpkins glowed in many windows and hordes of miniature monsters gathered on our doorsteps, demanding that we add to their sugary spoils.
Between Halloween, Samhain, the Day of the Dead and All Souls, this is traditionally seen by many cultures as the time when the veils between the worlds are at their thinnest, when the dead visit the living for feasting, revelry and celebration.
And while rocking costumes and getting wasted is all good fun, what if you just don’t feel like dressing up and getting down? What if you would rather celebrate the dead with a meaningful ritual?
Many of us know the profound pain of losing someone we love – and yet we don’t have many opportunities to talk about those who are no longer with us. There’s the funeral, possibly a memorial service, but other than that, we have to navigate the murky waters of grief without any occasion that honours the memory of those who have died. What if we could use this weekend as an opportunity to consciously celebrate those we have loved and lost?
A Day of the Dead Dinner is a wonderful ritual, created by artists Rachel Rose Reid and Pablo Villierezz, where everyone brings a beloved dead person to a feast, gathering together to share their flavours and stories and to honour their memory.
Here’s how it works.
When and Where
A Dinner for the Dead is particularly powerful around this time of year, as the darkness descends and the veils thin. But honouring our dead loved ones can happen at other times, too.
Host the dinner in your home, if you have space. Or ask a friend with a generous spirit and a long table. The host doesn’t have to do much other than provide a space, because this is a very unusual dinner party. There’s almost no cooking, little expense and barely any washing up.
Lay a table that has plenty of colour, candlelight and flowers. At one end, create a raised area that can serve as an altar. This can simply be a box or two, safely stacked and level, covered with a tablecloth, some flowers and an unlit candle for every guest.
What to Bring
- The memory of a beloved dead person
- A generous willingness to listen, as well as to speak, with love
- A photograph of the dead person. If you don’t have one, paint or draw them.
- A single dinner plate of their favourite food or signature dish, from a Fray Bentos pie to a pot of coq au vin, a bowl of rollmops or a Viennetta ice cream.
- An example of their chosen tipple, from their favourite tea to a bottle of sherry to ingredients for Snowballs.
- If you like, you can bring a piece of music they loved, checking with the host beforehand to see what kind of format it should be. You can also bring a significant object.
- Above all, bring their stories. Bring their jokes, their triumphs, their tragedies and their challenges. Your words will serve to muster their memory and honour their life and death.
What You Will Eat
This is by no means a fancy dinner party. This is a multi-sensory experience of people whose tastes have never been brought together before, and will never be again. Aunt Sarah’s apple cake may be followed by Grandpa Alexander’s pickled cucumbers, with Uncle Hugo’s favourite spam fritters washed down with Granny Eliza’s infamous homemade hooch.
It’s just going to be a weird menu.
Enjoy it anyway.
Who to Invite
Invite friends, and friends of friends, who have lost a loved one at some point in life. As for the beloved dead guest, invite anyone whose memory is both meaningful and personal to you.
Please note: this is not a fantasy dinner party where Jane Austen and Elvis might rub invisible shoulders with Ghandi and Marilyn. This is about real people, those whose lives and deaths touched your own. The idea is to bring a grandparent, a relative, a friend, a teacher.
Anyone you love who has died.
Best stick to humans, or the food will be even weirder.
Turn off your phones. Once everyone is seated, open with a welcome to both to the living and the dead. You’re about to meet an as-yet-unknown cast of fascinating characters so invite them all in to the celebration.
It’s also a good idea to acknowledge that, due to the nature of the evening, there may be a whole spectrum of emotions. Some may be sad, others enraged. Someone might get the giggles while someone else remains numb. Everyone there will have experienced death, after all, so everyone knows grief follows no predictable patterns.
Each guest takes it in turns to share their dead person, without interruption. Let them come to life, with words and sounds and tastes and emotions.
Pass around their picture. Explain what they meant to you. Tell their stories. Eat their food. Drink their drink.
Take your time.
When it comes to a natural completion, raise a toast to the loved one, add their image to the altar and light a candle in their memory. Then, after a brief moment of silence, move on to whoever feels to go next.
When everyone has told their tales, the altar will be full of faces, flickering in the candlelight. Minds may be full of memories and hearts full of emotions. Bellies will probably be gurgling with an eccentric array of foodstuffs and some might just be a little tipsy.
So take a moment to thank each other, the host and the guests, both living and the dead, for what has just happened. Whether you feel that your beloved dead joined you in spirit for the feast, or that they were simply present in your thoughts and memories, take one last moment to call them to mind and send them love.
And then, as you blow out their candle, remember this.
You are alive.
Fully, viscerally, emphatically alive.
Both theirs, and yours.