For Day of the Dead, mainstream media coverage is moribund

Folk holidays like the Day of the Dead make a good litmus test for mainstream media attitudes toward religion. A few reports interview adherents and research the spirituality behind the practices.  But most just seem to want to snap photos of the natives.

The two-day event, Nov. 1 and 2, is especially popular in Haiti and Mexico. It's a blend of Catholic and indigenous religion, either praying for the dead or asking the blessings of deities who care for them.

That's one way to look at it. But for folks at the the Associated Press, these days, it's all about weird people and weird customs:

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) -- Revelers streamed into cemeteries across Haiti on Sunday bearing beeswax candles, food offerings and bottles of rum infused with hot peppers to mark the country's annual Voodoo festival of the dead.
At Port-au-Prince's sprawling national cemetery, Voodoo priests and priestesses gathered around a blackened monument that is believed to be the oldest grave. There, they lit candles and stoked small fires as they evoked the spirit Baron Samedi, the guardian of the dead who is typically depicted with a dark top hat and a white skull face.

Most of the story is pretty much in the same vein: Oooo, lookit that (click, click)! And that that (click, click)!

Unfortunately, most of the "coverage" takes the form of images in "Photos of the Day" galleries. Even in far-off Australia, that nation's ABC News has a brief story with references to "sugar skulls, marigold flowers and other spirit offerings."

Not that AP's piece was a triumph of perceptiveness. Not when it tells how people "filled their mouths with fiery rum and sprayed over the tomb's crosses." Or when it has a Vodou priest standing on a "crumbling tomb" and cracking a whip. Or when the article has passages like, "Minutes later, the crowd perched atop the tombs gave respect to a priestess with a purple scarf wrapped around her head as she danced in a spastic manner and made a keening lament."

Later, the story does add a little bit on the evolution of the Vodou religion, as an African faith with an overlay of Catholicism. It developed among Africans who were brought to Haiti in the 17th century, the story explains. But there is no attempt to explain the rituals or theology or worldviews of the believers.

But here is the key, from the point of view of GetReligion: Nothing on the connection with the Catholic observance of All Souls Day, observed each Nov. 2. And this journalistic misdeed isn’t even a first offense -- I found this AP video on Day of the Dead from 2009.

Generally, I see more media understanding (maybe born of familiarity) for the Mexican version of the day. After getting sugar skulls and skeleton costumes out of its system, The Chicago Tribune notes that the two-day Dia de Muertos coincides with the Catholic All Saints Day and All Souls Day: "The Mexican holiday has evolved from the Catholic traditions and the indigenous cultures of Mexico."

The newspaper also quotes a Mexican-Cuban teacher at a Catholic high school, calling it a fun holiday: "You are remembering the good things about the person who died: what food they liked, songs they sang, playing with them. It isn't just sad; let's be colorful and playful."

But the article gets a little blithe about similarities to All Souls Day. As U.S. Catholic magazine pointed out four years ago, there are differences as well:

Both observances remember the dead. Their ways of remembering, though, go in somewhat different directions. All Souls Day remembers and prays for “all the faithful departed”; Día de los Muertos welcomes the return of the departed for a yearly family visit. All Souls Day and Día de los Muertos come from different places as well. The latter has roots in Mexico’s pre-Spanish civilization and its beliefs and practices relating to death, while the former has a firmly European heritage.

Surprisingly, the U.S. Catholic article doesn't note a strong point of overlap between the holidays: purgatory.  But Catholic Online does, quoted extensively in The Oklahoman:

People who die in a state of mortal sin go directly to hell, by virtue of their choice, while those who die without sin may go directly to heaven. Purgatory is for those who have died in a state of sin, but not mortal sin. These people must wait in purgatory until they are cleansed of their sins by the prayers of the faithful on Earth. Day of the Dead is an occasion to offer those prayers. This is largely redundant with the Catholic holy day of All Souls.

But both The Oklahoman and the Chicago Tribune are miles ahead of the Dallas Morning News, which ran an unholy fusion of business report and lifestyle feature:

Target, Michaels, Walgreens and CVS are displaying skeleton-shaped cookies, greeting cards, garlands and costume makeup inspired by the Day of the Dead, which is observed on Nov. 2.
The National Retail Federation has projected customers will spend about $7 billion this year for Halloween, and the Day of the Dead offers a way to build on one of America’s favorite spending holidays.

I almost expected to hear Yogurt in the movie Spaceballs  talk about "Moichandising!" 

It's not like the experts are hiding out or refusing to talk. I interviewed four of them back in 2009 to help my readers understand Vodou.

Yes, my story covers zombies, black magic, sticking pins in dolls and the like. But it also mentions what many Haitians call the religion: Sevis Lwa, "Spirit Service":

That service often takes the form of gifts -- sometimes a simple cigar, sometimes an animal sacrifice, according to each spirit's taste. In return, a believer asks a spirit for provision, protection, forgiveness or salvation. During Haiti's Festival of the Dead in November, worshipers asked Baron Samedi, the spirit of the dead, for relief from soaring food prices.

Yes, I get it. Religion writers are a shrinking tribe. Reporters on the scene don’t always grasp what they're seeing. My criticisms are aimed not necessarily at them but at the editors and publishers who regard spirituality as unworthy of specialists. Imagine assigning a football game to a reporter who didn’t know a scrimmage from a field goal. The result would likely be … well, like a story on Day of the Dead in the Associated Press.


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