The Day of the Dead in Sicily, between life and the afterlife

Each year on November the 2nd a special occasion is celebrated in Sicily, a mix of materiality and spirituality involving the entire population in a unique way. Between characteristic themes, hidden elements and a short story by the writer Giovanni Verga, the true meaning of this event is more complex than it may seem

Mentri sugnu na na ‘sta vita di guai, cosi di mor­ti mit­ti­tim­min­ni as­sai!” (while I’m living in and out of the rough, I want to be filled with dead’s stuff) reads an ancient Sicilian proverb referring to November the 2nd, the so-called Commemoration of the Dead or Day of the Dead, a very important day in Sicily. It is a special spiritual event, halfway between Christian and pagan traditions, heir of the millennial history of the island that has been ruled by totally distinct cultures. Otherwise it would not be possible to explain the coexistence of beliefs like that of remembering one’s beloved on their grave and that (especially in villages and little towns) of imaging the dead come back to life in a procession with gothic undertones, similar to many Halloween stories. But what does this link between the world of the living and the dead represent? What is the original message of this day, excluding the charm of typical markets and sweets? The answer is: the reunion with one’s beloved. Partial, of course, but still possible.

The Day of the Dead, perhaps more than any other holiday, has in fact the power to hold together two dimensions, which are both temporal (the past represented by those who no longer exist and the future incarnated by those who continue their journey) and interior (memory and future perspective). It is no coincidence that traditionally, and in Sicily with an even greater intensity than in the rest of Italy, November the 2nd is linked to the element of memory. If it did not play a leading role in the celebration, the Day would lose all meaning, becoming empty, sad and even macabre. The Sicilian writer Giovanni Verga knew this well and wrote a short story called “The Day of the Dead” in the collection “Vagabondaggio” published in 1887. There, he described some ugly souls damned to oblivion: they were arrested and imprisoned by a spell in the crypt of a church and their destiny was to vanish without leaving any trace. In the Sicilian conception of the afterlife, this should never happen, because continuing to honor those who no longer exist is not only a sacred duty, but also and above all a guarantee of uninterrupted prosperity for the living. In this sense, remembering those who left us influences the present, in a very intense interweaving between the material and spiritual plan. The reunion we mentioned above is therefore necessary to become aware of the cyclicity of existence.

Ossa di morto, typical biscuits of the Day of the Dead

It is now clear why the dead leave gifts to the children and why sowing once began with the Day of the Dead, according to Sicilians. Dedicating a thought to dead people is tantamount to dedicating it to ourselves, to our community, to what we have been and what we are going to be. So that the Commemoration of the Dead has the flavor of an Autumn moment, in which we fill ourselves with provisions to face Winter frost, in which our heart is strengthened by remembering the ones who left us, in which we wait for Spring to give new life to everything. Therefore, the dead guarantee our future prosperity: they teach us to respect the passage of time, to keep alive the link with the roots of our history. We remember them because we are alive, because we have the moral duty to carry on what we inherited, because we have the right to stop, to ask for advice and then to start our journey again. This reunion of a night, after all, is the only way we have to cultivate our memory, appreciating what we have in light of what we have lost: it is from death that life is reborn.



Translated into English by Eva Luna Mascolino

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