Thursday, April 1, 2010

Death, Good Friday and Santa Muerte - Is Religion the Opiate of the Masses?

This is Holy Week for all Christians. Today is Holy Thursday, the day Christ celebrated the Last Supper and the night Judas betrayed Him. Tomorrow is Good Friday, the day He was crucified. The day of Death. Sunday is Easter, the day of the Resurrection. The day we learned not to fear death.

As the headlines report updates on the Mexican Drug Cartels and escalating violence, many reports include these Cartel's relationship to "Santa Muerte" the Saint of Death. The Saint of Death is many things to many people, thought to be the last hope for those with no hope.

Many of the poor in Mexico honor Santa Muerte. The origin of Santa Muerte goes back prior to the Aztec religion. In Santa Muerte, death became personified in a skeletal form with traces of flesh, symbolizing the duality of life and death. The Mexican culture has always maintained a certain reverence towards death. Most followers of Santa Muerte are the poor, destitute and those without hope, including those involved in crime.

The Spanish settlers and the Catholic Church tried to eradicate the "cult" believers of Santa Muerte, but their efforts were futile. Eventually, the Catholic Church accepted Santa Muerte and attempted to combine Santa Muerte with All Saint's Day on November 1st.

In the Mexican culture, life and death are closely associated and revered. There is so much passion in birth, baptism, birthdays, funerals and death ceremonies. In San Antonio, you can be witness to the celebrations of death at local cemeteries. On Mother's Day for example, caravans of cars trail into local cemeteries with passengers carrying armloads of flowers, balloons and prayers. I have never experienced these types of celebrations in cemeteries outside of Latino neighborhoods although I have seen some similarities in funerals for some poor and minorities, particularly in New Orleans.

My mother was a very devout Catholic, honoring God, the Church, Christian and Family Values. She too believed in Santa Muerte and was in adoration and awe of the Saint.

As a child, I was a bit confused by death. The Mexican culture honored it. The American culture either never spoke of it, or was fearful of it. When I was about 4 years old, my same aged cousin died of an illness. She was my friend. I remember going to her funeral and being asked to lay roses on her tiny coffin. My mother said, "She is with God now in Heaven. Heaven is a beautiful place." Everyone was crying and I cried too, but somewhere inside me, I knew it would be ok. Janie was in Heaven.

Next, when I was 12, a neighborhood boy drowned. He was a teenager. He went fishing at a local river and fell off of the boat and his body went missing. The whole church community and the local police searched for his body. They found it the next day. In the funeral home, they had an open casket. Because his body had been in the water so long, his face was bloated and he didn't look like himself. You could see the stitches around his lips. This scared me. He looked like the "night of the living dead" zombies in the scary movies I went to see at the drive-in. That night I had horrible nightmares of him coming after me. I ran to my parent's bedroom and my mother kept saying, "Remember, he is with God in Heaven now." I tried not to be afraid. My mother always said we should honor the dead and not be afraid. "Do not be afraid of death. It is part of life."

The next deaths that were close to me were my father-in-law in the 1980's and my father in the 1990's. I remember, after each, I was so amazed that life continued, same as usual, the day after their funerals. Both men, especially my father, were so significant in my life, and life went on the next day all around the world as if nothing happened. How was that possible, I wondered? I could only think of my mother's word. "Don't be afraid of death. It is part of life. They are in Heaven now, with God."

Over the years, more people died, some due to "old age", some due to illness and two due to suicide. I was hit the hardest when my mother and three brothers died. My mother, at 93, was ready and embraced meeting her maker. In her casket, she was dressed in white and looked beautiful. She was not afraid at all. I looked at her and she was smiling and at peace. It was not the same for my three older brothers who had their times cut off too quickly, dying of ALS, Leukemia or Heart problems.

As I approach 60, I sometimes think of Death. I don't want to be afraid of it. I understand Santa Muerte. Death is inevitable. Members of my family died at ages 62 - 93. The saving grace is, I do know there is Heaven. I can only imagine how miserable life would be if one did not believe in God or Heaven.

Religion grows in the heart of the Mexican/Latino culture. We believe in God. We believe in Heaven. We believe in Santa Muerte and recognize Death is part of Life and it is celebrated with as much gusto as a Birthday Party. For the most part, Death is NOT embraced the same way in the USA.

In the USA, Death is quieter, particularly for those with means. Death is mourned in private, dressed in black and white, with a stiff upper lip. More and more US cemeteries do not allow flowers, crosses or any types of adornment in their cemeteries. Instead, many cemeteries have simple, bronze nameplates, all the same, lying flat with the cleanly cut grass. I'm not saying one way is better than the other. I am not saying one is right and one is wrong. I am not saying one is more Christian than the other. However, I've often wondered why the differences.

I wonder how many people in the U.S. prefer to keep their religion to themselves; keep their feelings to themselves; and are not absolutely positive there is a Heaven. I wonder how many believe, as Karl Marx believed, that religion is the opium of the people. How many believe the poor and those without hope, those who have never achieved fame or glory, require an intense drug like fantasy of Heaven in order to walk through life? Marx said, "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions."

During this year's Holy Week, I am glad that my mother instilled in me such a strong sense of God, Heaven, Religion, Family and to accept Death as part of Life. Otherwise, I would be singing woefully for all I've missed as Peggy Lee did or begging to be propped up in the local juke joint after I was gone!


ultima said...

I think there are many who believe that the hereafter is possible and that maybe in some sense can be re-united with loved ones. They don't necessarily define this as heaven. One poet wrote, "I will wait for you in the Mystic Isles" as a metaphor for this potential.

Death itself is not to be feared just the possibility that it will be an extremely and long drawn out experience. That, like any other pain, is to be feared -- not death itself which could be a great relief.

Dee said...

I think you agree that there are distinctive differences in the way Death is thought of and celebrated by Latinos and by those in the USA.

Click on the "propped up" link in my original post. Maybe it's that some people want to continue what they perceive as their Heaven on Earth experiences and don't want them to end.

Dee said...

I looked for your poem. Why don't you share it with us in comments.

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