As an attendee of the All Souls Procession and a Tucsonan by choice, I have a thing to say about costumes:
I read a comment recently disparaging the Procession based on it “just being a big costume contest.” Despite the fact that it’s obviously not a contest (and I’m sure the naysayer meant that metaphorically), the costumes are indeed a very important part of how some of us participate. This, of course, means many things to many people and for some it may just be fun; for many others the planning, making, and wearing of these costumes and props is a conduit for how we process loss and love.
I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m weird, always have been, and it’s damn nice to have a day where I can be basically as weird as possible and essentially fit in. People have be donning outrageous attire for celebrations and events almost since humans came to be. Large, colorful, loud are all ways you could describe garb of the past from nature celebrations to war attire to funeral processions to weddings and on. Many current cultures still make a production of these things. By no means should we as Americans abandon that now that we are a “civilized” society. We don’t use our abilities to create an air of observance around us, we don’t even practice the wearing of simple black during mourning any longer, except maybe to a funeral itself.
I came from a place that many Americans do, one where we don’t talk about death beyond the moment itself. It’s a tragedy that we are losing the ability to bring those we love back to life for whatever purpose we need, whether it be strength, hope, resolve, etc… It’s more of a tragedy that those who can and do silently don’t feel like they can talk about it. That’s the purpose of this day, but not just the day—the weeks and months leading up to it and the afterglow following it, which can sustain for quite some time.
For me, the costuming has evolved as I’ve grown in my relationship to mourning and my own roots. In some previous years I made the common choice to paint my face as a Day of the Dead type skull. Because we live in a largely Latinx community this is what this celebration presents as on the surface (the very surface). I knew no other way to draw parallels to the celebrations of life that [Mexican] culture is so adept at. Dig a little deeper though and you’ll see many cultures present at our Tucson celebration, people of all sorts bringing their heritage into the mix. I believe this is what we should be doing, this is how we will truly connect with those that came before us. There are plenty of valid concerns about appropriation and how it relates to this Procession, enough for a long-standing debate, but I think the process of borrowing and learning about a nearby culture was valuable in coming to my own conclusions about how my family history can be brought into the picture. I thank the surrounding community for teaching me how to process and celebrate lives past.
My bear, like many other costumes and props you’d see at the Procession, was hand made—piece by piece, minute by minute, hour by hour—each moment and stitch and cut done with strong intention. This was about 40 solid hours of hand work. The bodice and skirt were also handmade, as well as my son’s kilt and hat. We (and I’m including all of the participants I know personally) do not go into this lightly. Just look at some of the photos of the Urn Attendants in the Community Spirit Group and you’ll get an idea of how seriously they take this event. And to be clear, it’s not to make the event look good, it’s to bring honor to those that have passed on. I made mine during mostly solitary moments, but so many attendees work together to bring an idea to life—that in itself is a potent force of healing.
Many of us use not just subject matter but also materials that have just as much meaning to us as they did to those we are remembering. I made the bear for my grandmother on my mother’s side who is still living. She has dementia and we are mourning her in a way that is hard to describe. I want her to see the bear, which means something to her. She may not know me any longer but I want her to at least know that she is not alone in finding importance in such a creature. The wool I used to make it is from pieces that my great-grandmother on my father’s side had meticulously cut and saved to make her rugs. Those pieces were to be used to express her creativity and her love (she made all of her family members rugs, even us great-grand kids got sit-upons) so I returned them to creativity and love. The bodice fabric was hers also, and I found it represented well the element of nature that has be so important to many, many of my family members and to myself as well. The Earth is where we all began and it is where we will all end.
So yes, we wear costumes. Plenty of us start at the beginning, mimicking what we see around us. We evolve, we grow, we learn how to best bring those we’ve lost to life, how to honor our culture and respect the cultures around us. We plan and set intentions and spend huge chunks of time thinking about the love we felt growing up and trying to show that love through our attire.
This is how life and death should work. This is how remembrance looks to us. We stand with a long line of humans before us and are proud to represent being a part of that chain. Yes, I am proud to wear this and one of my favorite parts is seeing what people are also proud to present: we are literally wearing our love for others to see.
So to the the person who is sore about the costumes I say: spend a year thinking about how you can externalize the love for your family and friends and in 2018 come make a “costume” with me.
Kari Beth Cadenhead has volunteered with the Procession for several years. She’s been a seamstress for Procession of Little Angels costuming workshops, an Usher, and a day-of Procession of Little Angels crafts volunteer. In 2017, she took on the task of receiving all of the Ancestors Project submissions, posting them to Facebook, and corresponding with the people who submitted photos of their loved ones.