Honoring Our Dead, Holding their Stories by Marie Cartier

MarieCartierforKCETa-thumb-300x448-72405Next Saturday, November 1,  is the holiday Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead. This is a Mexican holiday that has currency now throughout the world—but especially in California. After all, in 2014 Latinos will surpass whites in California demographics. It is prevalent at this time in Southern California to see sugar skulls decorated—to even have children make decorated sugar skulls and honor the dead. The holiday provides a focal point for a centered observance and prayer dedicated to those who have died in the past year. It is connected to the other holidays at this time, particularly Halloween where as we Wiccans often say “the walls between the worlds are thin.”

Another tradition celebrated at this time is creating an altar for loved ones—or several altars or ofrendas. The altars can hold sugar skulls, photos and artifacts of the deceased, and marigolds. Marigolds are a symbol of death and are referred to as “the flower of death.” Marigold petals might mark a path from a home to a grave in a village so that the dead can find their way back for this holiday. Marigolds make arches and decorations in and around the altars/ofrendas for the scent of the marigold is purported to draw the dead back for the Day of the Dead reunion. The holiday has its roots in indigenous Mexican holidays and continues back possibly 4,000 years to Aztec rituals honoring the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the Queen of the Underworld.

Celebration at Hollywood Cemetery. Marie with sculpture at gravesite
Celebration at Hollywood Cemetery. Marie with sculpture at gravesite

So, this holiday has its roots in feminism, goddess worship and a sharing of oral history/herstory—as well as the decorative arts, It is a perfect union of feminism and religion representing the often under-represented—those who will not, in most cases, have “official” altars built to them. It is an asking for guidance from the spirits. But, more than that it is an asking directly for guidance from our now personal guides—those who have passed before that we now hope will return and help us in the next year of our life.

This year has been the most poignant year of my life in terms of experiencing death. Both of my parents passed away, and with those deaths attendant dreams were extinguished—dreams of reconciliations and connections…complicated, messy, human and hard. Perhaps in death we find the guidance from our loved ones we could not find in life. I ask for that. Yes, death is final, a final closing but it also may be finally- an opening. I have taken to wearing a bracelet this year that reads, “The world is round and the place which may seem like the end may also be only the beginning.” (Quote by Ivy Baker Priest, 1958 )

The other reason I have been so touched by death this year is that I have witnessed it and announced it in different ways in different arenas publicly throughout the year. My book, Baby, You Are My Religion: Women, Gay Bars and Theology Before Stonewall was published December 2013 (and came out in June of 2014 in paperback through Routledge).

The dedication to the paperback book reads as follows (p. v):

To all of the gay women who came before me, cleared the path for me, and walked the path with me…butch, femme, kiki, androgynous, lesbian and transgender who dared to walk into a gay women’s bar and acknowledge themselves and their community and made a community for me to walk into.
To my mother– Joanne Marie (Curtin) Cartier– a woman who came of age in the 1950s.

Rae Hamilton. Photo by: Cristina Vega
Rae Hamilton. Photo by: Cristina Vega

To my informants, especially Rae Hamilton, who gave me so much support, as well as stories. To those informants and friends, that I know of, who passed before this book was completed: Jo Duffy, Bobreta Franklin, Yolanda Retter, Mary Martinez, Lee Glaze, Mari Lamy…and most especially to Virginia “Ginny” borders, Heather Hamm, Stella Miller, Myrna Kyrland and Elsie Solay.

May the “Last Dance” always be a sweet one.”

When I read this in January both my mother and Rae Hamilton were still alive. By June, my mother was gone and by August, Rae was gone. I wrote for this blog about Rae and honoring our dead and also about my mother’s complicated, difficult  passing.

When I first read this at the book launch last January some of these names were not on the list that would appear in the paperback’s version in June. Bobreta Franklin, the amazing African American activist and one of the co-founders of United Lesbians for African American heritage had passed by then. So, too, had Myrna Kyrland whose story of calling the bars just to see if they existed and to hear the noises in the background sustained her throughout the 1950s during an abusive marriage. Myrna was my 80th interview and her story became the preface to the book. I learned of her death through her granddaughters who wrote to me to tell me that she had passed—four days before the hardback launch in January. I announced her death at the reading, and it was printed in the revised list by June. In January however, her granddaughters asked if they could come to my reading in lieu of a memorial for their grandmother—for clearly as they said, I knew “a lot more about their grandmother” than they did. Myrna married to re-populate the race after the Holocaust exterminating of so much of the Jewish race. She did that—and I announced that as her granddaughters stood. She married, had children, kept her children until and divorced when she was able. After children went on to marry, have children and those children were able to hear of their grandmother’s sacrifice and courage in a queer reading of her life four days after her passing.

How do we hold the stories and how do we honor our dead?

Beverly “Bev” Hickock. photo by: Angela Brinskele, 2010
Beverly “Bev” Hickock. photo by: Angela Brinskele, 2010

Recently another one of my informants passed away: Bevery “Bev” Hickock. Bev Hickock (1919-2014) was an amazing woman — and if you’ve ever driven safely on a California freeway—you can thank Bev Hickock. She compiled the first ever library of information that helped California builders create the freeway

I was so very blessed to do the research that I did, and get the stories that I got, before these women left us – with an amazing legacy that I feel truly honored to be able to pass on. And as I go about promoting this book, and advancing the stories of the women that it contains, I have realized that this list of those who have died will grow. There is no way to write a book with 102 primary interviews with mostly gay women who identified gay feelings and acted on them in the 40s, 50s, and 60s without having many of them pass on, as I continue on, with the book as their legacy. This is not something I anticipated—that with most every reading I would be announcing another name added to the list of those who have passed who contributed their story. But, that is how it has been.

Some of the other things you can put on your altar for Day of the Dead are items important to the person — their favorite drink, articles of clothing and jewelry and other personal artifacts that signified them in this world.

This year my altar will hold personal memories for me, very personal, as well as memories that are more public and become more public each time I speak. Tears will be shed and marigolds scattered. My book will be on my altar. Beer bottles and a wine glass will be on my altar to honor the pre-Stonewall bar culture that provided the only haven that many of these women would ever know for their gay selves. Cigarettes might also be on my altar for the same reason…and a bold pinky ring that signified to knowing eyes that a woman was a butch lesbian.

The last chapter of my book is entitled “Last Call!” and starts with the words from the iconic Donna Summer song, “Last Dance” (1983), quoted in the dedication earlier. “Last dance/ Last chance for love/ Yes, it’s my last chance for romance tonight.”

Yes. That is my wish this for all who passed away this year.

May the “Last Dance” always be a sweet one.

After all, the world is round. What looks like the end, might just be the beginning.

Marie Cartier is a teacher, poet, writer, healer, artist, and scholar. She holds a BA in Communications from the University of New Hampshire; an MA in English/Poetry from Colorado State University; an MFA in Theatre Arts (Playwriting) from UCLA; an MFA in Film and TV (Screenwriting) from UCLA; and an MFA in Visual Art (Painting/Sculpture) from Claremont Graduate University. She is also a first degree black belt in karate, Shorin-Ryu Shi-Do-Kan Kobayashi style. Ms. Cartier has a Ph.D. in Religion with an emphasis on Women and Religion from Claremont Graduate University.

23 thoughts on “Honoring Our Dead, Holding their Stories by Marie Cartier”

  1. “The ancestors live in us.” I was writing my blog for Monday as yours was being posted, a lovely coincidence.


    1. gorgeous!! thank you! …our life’s star …reminds me ofemerson, “what lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are small compared to what lies within us.”


  2. Brava. I’m glad you wrote about how important the Day of the Dead is to all of us, Pagan or not. This is an ancient modern holiday that seems to have escaped from the clutches of the missionaries and flown up into glorious Technicolor. I used to turn my dining room table into an ofrenda. I also used to lead rituals in which the participants built a community ofrenda and wrote names of their “dear departed” on paper skulls, which we laid on and around the the altar. People still remind me that they attended these rituals.


  3. What a good reminder of the rituals for the dead we used to have in church for All Saints Day. It made me realize that we now have “wear your Halloween costume” day instead, so it’s all about how cute the kids are and nothing about those on whose shoulders those children stand.

    In an unrelated issue: I am always confused about the use of the word Hispanic vs white. Aren’t there as many variations in skin color among Hispanics as there are ethnicities and languages among people with white skin? How do Hispanics see themselves in this “sorting” process?
    I look forward to the day when this kind of census taking becomes irrelevant.


    1. thank you for your post! yes. we often honor our dead in some ancient ways when we don a costume!( I am referring to the Census and quoting from that when I use the word Latinos… Actually I don’t believe I use the word Hispanic…)


      1. Aha! I wasn’t going to wear a costume, but now I’ll figure out one that honors someone in the way that your post honors your dead.

        You DID use Latinos–sorry for my mistake. And I understand why the census makes those differentiations, but some of that language mostly serves to separate us and to stoke our fears.


  4. We make our own rituals, or borrow what we need from those that have been passed down. We take the actions that will ease our grief and make meaning of the passage. I send blessings to you, dear Marie, at this time of your losses.


    1. …yes, my friend…we borrow what we need. thank you for support and art and teaching, terry. all have helped me create passageways of my stories and those who came before…


  5. What a beautiful, poignant post. The Day of the Dead in my experience (here in the U.S.) is a wonderful celebration of the dead. Last year I went to a Day of the Dead parade and performance in Missoula, Montana and at the very end of the parade someone handed me a sugar skull, which needs to become the centerpiece of my ancestor altar. We need the Day of the Dead here in the U.S., both as a time to remember of loved ones who have died and also to reincorporate death into our understanding of life, rather than fleeing from it as the taboo it has become.


    1. yes. we all must die. live as if today is not a dress rehearsal but also knowing at some point the lights will go out and we go “home.” death is life and life is death…thank you for yr post and your honoring of these traditions.


  6. Growing up in California, I did associate marigolds, especially the small ones, with death. So imagine my surprise when I visited Pakistan and marigolds are associated with WEDDINGS!! They make garlands of them and string the about the bride and groom’s necks and wrists. I don’t think the South Asians have that much of a sense of irony. My theory is the marigolds (indigenous to North and South America) resembled a native crysanthemum, but the marigolds were easier to grow, hence the switch.

    Still, it is interesting to think about. What is a funeral to some, can be a wedding for others…A bit like the Death Tarot card.

    Thanks for this post.


    1. thank you for adding to the conversation! traditions change around the world…while we hve the rainbow at gay pride for instance in amsterdam gay pride color is simply hot hot pink:-)


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