Dia de los Muertos

Dancers  with Face Painting and in Costume at Dia de los Muertos

Dancers in Costume at Dia de los Muertos

Even though Halloween is not one of my favorite American holidays, and I honestly do not “get it,” I can understand and connect to the Latin American tradition of Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. It reminds me of the Austrian tradition of thinking of those that passed and visiting the graves on November 1. As far back as I can remember, November 1 has meant spending the morning in usually cold and foggy graveyards and wearing the new winter coat for the first time of the year. November 1 is a holiday in Austria, and since schools, offices, and stores are closed, there is no excuse not to be at the graves of those who have passed. For weeks, graves have been prepped for the big day with new plantings and freshly cut flowers, a new lantern, and of course plenty of candles. The graveyard on that day turns also into a place to meet up with everyone who has moved away since each grave is usually surrounded by family and friends even from far away.

Cards to the Dead on Dia de los Muertos in Sacramento, CA

Cards to the Dead on Dia de los Muertos in Sacramento, CA

Altar at Dia de los Muertos in Sacramento

Altar at Dia de los Muertos in Sacramento

Statue at Dia de los Muertos Celebrations

Statue at Dia de los Muertos Celebrations


This is a tradition that is very foreign to most Americans; they do not really seem to spend much time at graveyards. But the Latin American holiday of Dia de los Muertos has the same basic principle – to honor the dead. True, the Austrian celebration on All Saints Day is a little more somber and quieter, but the idea is the same. Dia de los Muertos honors the dead with festivals and celebrations of the lives of the deceased with food, drink, and parties. Families set up altars for the deceased in their houses; photos, favorite foods and drinks, pan de muerto, marigolds and more are placed on the altars. Families celebrate  with food in graveyards and decorate the graves. The deceased become part of the community again as they are awakened from their sleep.

Dancers at the Dia de Los Muertos in Sacramento, CA

Dancers at the Dia de Los Muertos in Sacramento, CA

Since Sacramento, CA is so diverse, celebrations of Dia de los Muertos have become quite common. This year’s celebrations included many altars set up by families for the deceased as well as a parade and performances of traditional Mexican dances. It was not quite the same for me as visiting the graves of loved ones on All Saints Day in Austria, but I felt more at home at this celebration than I ever do on Halloween with its costumes and sweets.

Close-Up of Altar at Dia de los Muertos

Close-Up of Altar at Dia de los Muertos

Parade at Dia de los Muertos in Sacramento

Parade at Dia de los Muertos in Sacramento

Meet a Saint at the Abbey in Schlierbach, Austria


St. Julianus in the abbey church in Schlierbach

The visit to the Abbey in Schlierbach and the bones of Saint Julianus reminded me of an article about death that my students had to read for a response essay. The article was called “Death Is Having a Moment” and discussed the emergence of Death Salons around the Western World – see link to article: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/10/death-is-having-a-moment/280777/

The article mentioned a talk about bejeweled skeletons, especially popular in Bavarian, Austrian, and Swiss cultures it seems. A topic that was not surprising to me really shocked some students; most could not imagine what such a bejeweled skeleton could look like. A search online for jeweled skeletons provided images, plenty of examples of splendid pieces of art decorating the bones of mostly saints (for example, see this article with detailed pictures of skeletons: http://www.cnn.com/2013/12/05/world/gallery/beauty-from-the-crypt/ ).

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Interior of the abbey in Schlierbach

I did not expect to see a skeleton/saint in Schlierbach; it was not advertised in any way I noticed. But there he was, right up front but to the side of the main altar, not as bejeweled as some of the more spectacular examples online, but still impressive. None of the Austrians visiting the church with me paid much attention to the saint. It made me wonder whether Austrians are more open to discuss death and accept death as a natural part of life and culture as indicated by the article.

For an excellent online media tour of the abbey, go to: http://www.stift-schlierbach.at/fileadmin/panoramatour/index.html

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Steeple of the church in Schlierbach

Not Just Baroque: Gothic Style in Austrian Churches

Gampern close up

The winged altar in Gampern, which is the third largest of its kind in Upper Austria. The church and altar are in late Gothic style from 1497-1507.

Even though Baroque seems to dominate the churches in Upper Austria, I also noticed many other styles and examples. Some churches are still in the Gothic style, as for example the church in Gampern (built 1497-1507). Other churches break with old traditions and decorations and present a modern interior, such as the pilgrimage church Maria Schmolln with its altar from 1992/1993. The church itself is much older (from around 1880) and used to be decorated in a more traditional style: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maria_Schmolln#mediaviewer/Datei:Maria_Schmolln_vor_1962.jpg

Maria Schmolln Altar

The new altar from 1992/1993 in Maria Schmolln.

Maria Schmooln2

The original picture of Mary that started the pilgrimages in Maria Schmolln.














The newer style is a change after all the Baroque and Gothic interiors I have seen but does not make the same strong impression.



Gampern 2

View of the church in Gampern.