Honors for the dead

  • Margo Gallagher stands next to a Dia de los Muertos shrine for her late son, Aaron, at her home in Petaluma, California on Thursday, October 18, 2012. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

Margo Gallagher didn't grow up with the Mexican tradition of El Dia de los Muertos.

"I had never heard of it," the 56-year-old community volunteer from Petaluma said. "My married name is Irish, but my family background is Russian and Jewish."

But like growing numbers of people from a variety of cultures, she has found solace in honoring lost family members and friends on the "Day of the Dead."

As proof of the celebration's growing diversity, Israel Escudero, one of the organizers of Petaluma's annual Dia de las Muertos observance, cites the array of languages used in written messages left on the altars honoring the dead.

"We have Chinese and French messages, and a lot in Portuguese," Escudero said.

Escudero, 40, grew up in Mexico City with a father who used Dia de los Muertos to remember his own parents, who died long before the grandchildren were born.

"That was the only way I knew my grandparents. We knew the first tamales that came out of the pot were the for the altar, because those were their favorite food," Escudero said. "It's my favorite holiday, bigger than Christmas."

Traditionally, children who have died are honored Nov. 1 and deceased adults on Nov. 2, with often humorous displays of the departed's favorite food and drink, sugar skulls and colorfully costumed skeletons, Escudero explained.

Gallagher came to embrace Dia de los Muertos via a very different route, through devastating personal loss, and found in the Mexican tradition a pathway from grief to peace.

In 2001, Gallagher's mother, Maxine Myers of Santa Cruz, died of breast cancer. Later the same year, Gallagher's husband, Dennis Gallagher, a San Francisco firefighter, died of a heart attack at age 47.

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