The Day of the Faithful Departed


"Are you tired?  I'm sure you are; there are so many people!  It is full, very full because of the date today,"  the cab driver said, smiling over his shoulder as we wove our way through the crowd.  I had not thought about crowds at the airport.  It was true, big family groups were lined up to welcome their people home.  We had been the only extranjeros in the migration line.

In El Salvador, November 2nd is El Día de los Difuntos Fieles, known in the US as All Souls Day or the Day of the Faithful Departed.  In El Salvador, All Souls Day is an official holiday.  Traditionally, families gather to remember their dear departed ones, often gathering in the cemeteries or places where the loved ones are remembered.

In the Salvadoran village of Tonacatepeque, elaborate customs surrounding All Souls Day are preserved by the Cultural House and town leaders, and are passed on from one generation to another.  The traditions and beliefs are as mixed as the ancestors, from native religions and Christianity, from legend and history, from collective and personal experience.  

The Pipil ancestors of today's Tonacatepecanos (yes, that is actually a word) believed in the immortality of the soul.  Ancient beliefs included an afterlife with different levels elements of a complex journey, and even reincarnation.  What happened to a person after death depended on the person's station in life and manner of death.  Soldiers killed in battle and those killed by sacrifice went to the upper heaven.  Those who died of natural causes went to a place below the earth.  Distinguished people had magnificent funerals and fancy tombs.  Great lords were buried in their palaces, and regular people were buried under their homes.  In one common practice, the body was incinerated and the head was buried separately in a clay vessel.  It was common for a dog to be sacrificed as part of the funeral ritual.  Funeral preparations and celebrations typically took a couple of months, giving families time to grieve.

The conquest by Spain brought Christian beliefs about the afterlife.  Prayers and offerings for the departed as they journeyed through purgatory carried echoes of Pipil burial offerings of household goods and corn for their beloveds.  The idea of heaven or paradise for the Saints and martyrs echoed beliefs of the highest level of paradise for faithful soldiers and those who were sacrificed.  Stories and legends, beliefs and practices merged and evolved, living in the stuff of bedtime stories but also in the stuff of daily life and faith.

In Roman Catholic tradition, All Saints Day is a time to remember and honor the officially recognized saints of the church.  All Souls Day is dedicated to the memory of the faithful departed in our families.  In the Lutheran tradition, All Souls Day is not celebrated separately.  All Saints Day is the day on which the role models of faith, family members and all the faithful departed are remembered and honored.  In worship this morning, Bishop Gómez of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church said, "The best place to be today is in the church.  In the cemetery we have our tradition where the remains of our loved ones rest.  We want to remember that our loved ones are alive in the Spiritual dimension.  Our being is not extinguished when we leave this life.  We go to a happy meeting with God."

In Tonaca, All Saints Day (November 1st) is certainly a day celebrated in the church, but it is also the day of La Calabiuza (usually translated Day of the Dead), when all of the legends that blend past and present come to life in the streets of the town, in the dark of night, with crazy costumes, shrieks and screams, music, food and fun.  While in appearance, the celebration may look similar to Day of the Dead celebrations which are held in parts of Mexico and in Latinx and Native communities in the US, La Calabiuza celebration is not the same.  Nor is it like Halloween.  Commercial enterprises in the United States are good at appropriating traditions in ways that are not authentic and not respectful.   

El Día de los Difuntos Fieles (The Day of the Faithful Departed) November 2nd is the time when families make their annual pilgrimages to the cemeteries, carrying offerings:  chains of paper flowers, cypress branches, balloons, candles, photographs, guitars, incense, grandmas, pictures of saints, and children. They eat squash cooked in honey and tamales made with toasted corn. They sing and pray, depending on their tradition either encouraging their loved ones on a journey or comforting one another knowing that their loved one is in the arms of Jesus.  The colors, the smells, the flavors and the sounds surrounding the Day of the Faithful Departed coincide with theologies of the ancients and theologies of today.  

Links:  There are a few links sprinkled into the story that will take you to previously written stories with photos.  You might also enjoy clicking on the Legends Label.

Acknowledgements:  Information in this post is taken from memories of exhibits at the Milwaukee Public Museum, the Guzman Museum of Anthropology in San Salvador, first-hand experience with friends in Tonaca, and the book Leyendas de Tonaca, Cuentos y Narraciones Breves Pintadas de Azul y Blanco by Dr. José Maria Melgar Callejas.





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