Día de los Muertos

A Latin-American holiday offers an opportunity for discussion and grieving

By Dale Weiss

Illustrator: AP/World Wide Photos

Students in Albequerque, N.M. wear traditional Latin American puppets in a Day of the Dead parade.
– photo: AP/World Wide Photos

Although death and dying are not topics usually covered in elementary school curricula, I had a powerful experience when I taught a unit on Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a Latin-American holiday celebrated in early November that honors deceased family members and friends. The unit helped integrate an understanding of other cultures into my second/ third grade classroom of predominantly white students.

With the exception of one student, whose mother was Mexican, none of my other students were familiar with Day of the Dead. Though the customs of Día de los Muertos vary regionally, one common element is constructing commemorative altars. The relatives decorate altars with photos of the departed, their favorite mementos and foods, and an adornment of flowers and candles. Most people honor Día de los Muertos by remembering deceased infants and children on November 1 (All Saints Day) and adults on November 2 (All Souls Day). It is thought that the spirits of the dead are expected to pay a holiday visit home and should be provided with bountiful sustenance for the journey.

Most children in the classroom had not experienced the death of a family member. But they had heard stories of relatives who had died. I asked each student to decide which deceased family member they would like to commemorate for our Día de los Muertos unit. At the same time, I communicated with the parents of my students my intentions for our study of Día de los Muertos.

Through interviews with family members and looking through family photos, students discovered valuable information about the family members that they were honoring. Each student created a diorama inside an empty shoebox, where they placed tiny photos, mementos, and food made from clay. We placed the dioramas – referred to as altars – in one corner of the classroom. Students decided that when they entered this area, they should remove their shoes and become silent.

The students loved visiting the altar area. Though it was not blocked off in any particular way, it held a sacred kind of warmth. Students could often be found “speaking with the ancestors,” both their own and those of their classmates. Other times they would comment to one another about the family members being honored.

“I liked learning about your grandpa because of all the jokes everybody said he told.”

“I think that person looks really nice in the picture and that they were probably a very nice person too.”

“I think it’s sad that people die but I’m glad we get to know them from the altars.”

As our Día de los Muertos unit continued, my students asked many questions about death and dying. “Why do people die?” “Do people only die when they get real old?” “How come animals don’t live as long as people?” I read several books to the students about life cycles of plants and animals, which eventually led to questions about people dying. I have often found that the topic of death is shunned in school settings, a practice I do not agree with. It was important to me that my students felt comfortable asking their questions, that their questions be taken seriously, and that the topic of death and dying be approached as an ongoing, open discussion.

Several students chose to write a poem together during our Writing Workshop time. They always enjoyed writing group poems, where a group would agree on a core set of ideas and each student would write a line about the topic. Then they worked together to fine tune the poem.

This poem, “The Circle of Life” was also set to music by a local cellist, Jami:

“The Circle of Life”
There’s a beginning and an end
And a life in between
And this we know
For all living things.
For plants and people
And trees and animals
Life circles round
As we sing this song.
The world is a big chain of life
The world is a big chain of life
For plants and people
And trees and animals
Life circles round
As we sing this song.

In their best penmanship, each student wrote a short biography of the family member they had honored, and included why this person was important to them. I duplicated the biographies in a spiral-bound a book for each student. As our Día de los Muertos unit came to an end, students hosted a celebration for their family members. Each student read the tribute they had created for their deceased family member, and we invited everyone to join in singing “The Circle of Life.” Students then proudly acted as tour guides in the altar area. Many family members expressed gratitude for experiencing their children so deeply honoring a loved one from their family.

I learned many things that year. I learned that children are able to embrace difficult topics and do not fear talking about death nearly as much as adults do. Death is a topic largely avoided in the United States, and in our curricula.

I also realized it is not only students’ minds that walk through the classroom door day after day, their hearts show up as well. Some days children come to school in great pain. Was I, as a teacher, welcoming their fears, doubts, grief, and sadness? What was I doing to encourage or discourage students’ ability to share from a place deep within them? What topics do I have great difficulty discussing and as a result pass onto my students the message that “we just don’t talk about that in here?”

I learned that children need the opportunity to honor their ancestors and the safety in which to do this.

And finally, when one of our cherished classmates and friends passed away towards the end of our school year (see Remembering Tyson), we were better equipped as a group to share our grief and process our loss together.