Lower-school students honor dead relatives by contributing to music director’s Day of the Dead altar

Garrett Shonkwiler
A skull talks about a second-grade student’s deceased father: “I miss my Daddy. He died protecting me and my mom. He was 38 years old. He got shot 11 times in the back.”

On the wall of lower-school music director Elena Bennett’s  classroom is the following quote: “I miss my daddy. He died protecting me and my mom. He was 38 years old. He got shot 11 times in the back.”

It is one of many quotes honoring dead loved ones on Bennett’s bulletin board. Each is placed in a paper speech bubble, and paired with one of two dozen decorations of skeletons singing and playing instruments.

Written above the display are the words, “Con cariño… recordamos,” which means “We fondly remember.”

Six years ago, Bennett started the project with her music students. Since the first year of the project, she has saved and reused all the paper skeletons and their instruments, but not the skulls. These are created annually by Bennett’s students. She puts the display up on the Day of the Dead (Nov. 2), and takes it down just before Thanksgiving Break each year.

The Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday lasting three days, when family and friends gather to remember and pray for the dead.

Typically, the first graders bring in photos of deceased relatives to place on an altar, a large wooden stand with pictures and items representing deceased people who had meaning in the students’ lives. The second graders create the skulls to top the skeleton bodies, and the third graders create memories about their relatives.

Garrett Shonkwiler
A skull talks about a student’s great-grandfather’s role in the military: “My Grandma’s Dad fought in the British war. I am thankful for that. Love, Vaishnavi”

These roles don’t always apply, however; if a second grader would prefer to create a memory about his relative, he can do so, Bennett said.

The memories are the students’ quotes posted on the wall, honoring deceased relatives that meant something to them. One memory reads: “The night I found out my Grandpa died I cried and cried and cried. He was very special to me. I will always remember my Grandpa!”

Bennett said that though the Day of the Dead is a Mexican tradition, “all cultures share this remembering the dead.” Therefore, this is not borrowing another culture’s holiday, but rather, recognizing a part of life we all share.

However, she acknowledges her students are young, and many are fortunate to not have experienced a death greatly impacting their lives. Therefore, she stressed that it was not an assignment; kids participate in the activity only if they are willing.

She does, however, ensure greater student participation by allowing them to bring in pictures of their pets to put on the altar, and create memories for them. Although remembering animals on this day is a departure from Mexican tradition, it brings meaning to the activity for many of her younger students.

“Many had a pet die that meant a lot to them, so we have a dog skeleton on the wall (to represent this)” she explained.

Bennett said that the inspiration for this project comes from giving students a holiday for reminiscing about their loved ones.

“Americans treat skeletons as a scary, grotesque symbol on Halloween, but the Day of the Dead remembers these people with love and honor.

“It’s the antidote to Halloween.”

By Garrett Shonkwiler

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