Día de los Muertos and recent deaths have many of us pondering the subject, especially, the one that hit closest to home. Sally, my high school best friend, beloved in the New York City activist/ healing/ artist community, took cancer by the reins and planned her final moments majestically, exiting like a goddess at 43-years old. We are still in awe of her bravery, her capacity to stare fear in the eye and lunge forward valiantly in love and light. A natural teacher, her transition modeled for us what it might look like if we all opened up to creating the possibility of dying with dignity, a conversation most of us can’t or won’t have because too many of us are terrified of death. Yet, as we avoid this dialogue, we are dying unthinkable deaths. How do we speak of liberation, not just surviving but thriving, when we can’t legitimately address and prevent how too many of us are dying too soon? Hence the need to consider how we may begin to decolonize death.
Some might wonder, why decolonize death if it is the end, the surrender. As colonized people, we are conditioned to view all in terms of conquest. You either conquer or you surrender and lose. Christian churches teach that we come here to live in God’s name and do good by “Him” so in the end we can ascend to “his” celestial heavenly domain where we live in peace for eternity. In this way, the surrender would be the win, however historically, these churches were also doing much of the conquering in “His” name. This claim did not sit well with our Taíno ancestor, Hatuey, whose image you might have seen on a Malta bottle at the supermarket. About to be burned at the stake by Spanish conquerors for refusing to give up his people, they encouraged him to accept their God, amidst the flames (the irony), so he would go to heaven.
Hatuey asked a very poignant question: “When your people die, where do they go?”
“They go to heaven,” the friar answered.
“Then I want to go to hell.”
For Hatuey and his people, the reality they lived under conquest was the same hell these conquerors claimed their God could deliver them from. Hatuey believed that the only God these Christian conquerors worshipped was the gold and the jewels that they enslaved his people for. Conquest is ultimately a set-back for all humanity. When conquerors and murderers take it upon themselves to end the life of another, (or others in massive proportions) they are disrupting the natural order, sabotaging that person’s mission towards building humanity. When conquerors stole our ancestors from their homelands, robbing them of their humanity by enslaving them and shipping them as cargo, causing illness, death or desperation that was only intercepted by suicide, that was a disruption in the evolution of humanity. Generations-worth/ nations-worth of people were set-back, their families’/ tribes’/ clans’/ communities’/ nations’ growth interrupted. With this collective, ancestral trauma surrounding how we die, and with all conquest, colonization and enslavement have taught us, it is no wonder that we still fear the hell out of death.
We cannot change what happened. We still, as living creatures must grow by learning from the past, put an end to the atrocities. Stop disrupting the growth of humanity with borders and walls; Stop colonialism; Stop tyranny, despotism; Stop tearing children from their mothers; Stop white supremacy and the patriarchy; Stop the trafficking of human beings; stop police and military brutality on innocent people; stop physical/ emotional/ sexual abuse; Stop hate so there won’t be hate crimes; stop imposing gender and sexual preference on the world; stop the poisoning of our bodies with chemicals, and poisonous foods; Stop the prison industrial complex; stop attacking schools; stop miseducation; stop the unequal distribution of wealth.
Despite the conquest, colonization and enslavement, our people not only survived and flourished, our culture and beliefs have played a role in our capacity to survive the unthinkable. This collective trauma also unites us in a collective capacity for compassion, resistance, resilience and thriving. I don’t mean collective for those of us here. I mean collective as in those of us here and our ancestors who have died and continue to share their secrets of survival in our blood and whisper the secrets of greatness to our spirits.
Let me elaborate by offering some transparency around my own beliefs on death. For starters, unlike the friars pushing heaven on Hatuey, I don’t believe in hell. I am not interested in discussing religion in this dialogue, however religion has a strong hold on the matter and on our fears surrounding death. Death in my family was normalized by the number of losses we suffered and because my family talks to dead people. We all do. Some of us are just better at it than others. Some of us are conscious of it, understand and accept it, and invest time and energy into developing that ability like some go to the gym to increase their strength and stamina. Others, aware and terrified, actively attempt to suppress this ability. Others only believe what they can tangibly see in front of them. We are all equipped with this capacity for channeling, seeing, hearing, feeling and knowing not with our earthly bodies, but with our spirit. We are all capable of it regardless of religion and spiritual beliefs, though these certainly influence how we view, embrace or reject these abilities.
Since my earliest memories, we sat around my grandparents’ kitchen table in East New York, Brooklyn, not just to eat pasteles y arroz con gandules but to also welcome visits from our ancestors. It is a tradition that my grandfather inherited from his mother in their hometown of Peñuelas, channeling lost loved ones, welcoming advice from spirit guides and last but not least helping spirits coming in search of guidance. We did not sit there to summon the spirit of anyone in particular. We sat there humbly and openly, allowing what needed to come through to come through. My mom jokes of how I often “come to the table with an agenda.” I don’t speak my intentions openly but prior to arriving I do set an intention in my head and heart of what I am most needing guidance on or the most concerning matter affecting my family at the moment. I don’t call on anyone in particular, but I may ask certain spirits to get a message out there for me. Then I sit there patiently and humbly to see what happens. More likely than not, precisely what I am asking gets addressed, usually by the spirit of someone we know and trust. It’s like a big family meeting cross-dimension. It is a reciprocal relationship. We don’t pay money to people to tell us our future or to give us winning lotto numbers. We are engaging in a mutual elevation of spirits incarnate and not. We sit together for help and guidance and in turn we too offer help and guidance. We offer this help to spirits in the same way people came to my grandfather for help with illnesses and life’s challenges. It reveals that we are all connected in this work as part of a universal energy of light and love that is God (a force I choose not to diminish with assigned earthly-gendered pronouns.)
We work with love to access liberation. Our energy as spirits transforms and goes on elsewhere. Our consciousness lives on, though not in this physical form we know. The earth is virtually a speck of dust within the greater context of our universe. We cannot pretend to be the only source of life and intelligence in that vastness. We cannot pretend to be the highest form of life when some of us commit atrocities against this planet and each other. A blue heaven is merely some miles blasting out of our atmosphere to infinity. I paint spirits against black backgrounds because infinity is the black, vast darkness within which our divine light shines in varying degrees of luminosity and brilliance like stars. We work on perfecting our light with love as our tool. I am not afraid of the dark as it is where I get to test the colors and lumens of my light.
Biologically, there is a natural order that does require us to be afraid of death. We each arrive here with a unique mission for our own growth and for the greater service of humanity. By fearing death, we ensure a natural instinct for survival, one that would have us taking enough care of ourselves and others to ensure our well-being, our longevity, for the purpose of doing what we’ve come here to do. That mission always involves learning to love, offer love and be loved better each time. Many of us who find ourselves in a state of loveless-ness, internally or externally, experience tendencies that are self-destructive, inflicting self-harm and being abusive to others in varying degrees. In this way we embody the ironic conflict of acting out a fear of death by bringing ourselves and others dangerously close to it. WTF?! What if we took a collective pause, stepped back to assess what we are raging against. Is it death? Is it life? Is it ourselves? Maybe if we begin to demystify death, unlearn the fears taught by our oppressors, tap into the ancestral wisdom flowing in our blood, then we can begin to heal some of this conflict. We can begin to step through fear, closer to love and liberation and living fully.
With that said, I present this long list of points that I developed on how we may work towards safeguarding our vitality and rethinking and decolonizing death.
Points towards Decolonizing Death:
- “How long shall they kill our prophets, while we stand aside and look?”
Honor the dead. Do not let our people die in vain. Ensure a dignified death for every person. Count them. Know and say their names. Seek justice. Offer light and love. Do not let people, families, communities, governments and nations ignore our dead.
- Decolonize Birthing. Some of us are born in ways more violent and traumatic than death itself. If we would like to ensure a dignified death, we first must work towards ensuring that every human and their mother has a dignified entry into this planet.
- Identify/ develop your own spirit practice. Do you wholeheartedly embrace a spiritual belief? How do you tap into this daily to refresh, recharge and revitalize? Is your spirit practice as simple as being out in nature? Studying the clouds and stars. Connect yourself to this earth/ the cosmos. Study your beliefs so they grow.
- Ground. Some take the spirit practice a little too far. It is nice to have our heads in the clouds from time to time, but it is necessary to come back down. Ground, to this earth, this body. You are a spirit, but you must work with this body… for now. A good model for this is the chakra system. For your energy to rise to the upper spirit chakras, it must first balance then travel through the lower/ more physical chakras. Balance.
- Spirit practice is serious business. If you know little about a tradition or the folks holding some gathering, proceed with caution. Know whose energy you are working with. Don’t hop into a “spirit gathering” like you hop in and out of a club. Just like there are good people and funky energy people, there are benevolent and, well, not so benevolent spirits. The latter would love to have fun with you if you make yourself a target. Go to where you feel safe, where you can trust, where you are respected and loved. If love, light, respect and peace are not the order of the space, leave. Spirits hang out in spaces aligned with their energy. If the energy is funky, expect the spirits to be funky. And this applies to everywhere: ceremony, church, home, work, play… Sometimes funky spirits need to show up. For that a space of love, light and wisdom has the power to work with these spirits for the mutual benefit of all.
- Reciprocal veneration for our ancestors. Who are our ancestors? How did they die? What traumas surrounding death have we inherited? Are we living a life that honors their sacrifice? Are we choosing dignity and liberation in our own energy? We cannot claim to honor our ancestors while dishonoring our own selves. Remember it is reciprocal. When we heal ourselves, we help them heal. When we liberate ourselves, we help them liberate. Let’s not look at all our ancestors as almighty and all-knowing. They are spirits just like us, we just have a body right now. They ain’t God. They are looking to us to finish what they started.
- Analyze how we die. Who is our community? Who are our people? How do we die? At what age? Under what conditions? What does this reveal about the living state of us and our people?
- Secure survival. We are slowly (though lately it seems more quickly) crafting the demise of this planet. What role are we playing in securing our own/ our family’s/ our community’s access to clean water; clean food; natural medicine; mental health resources; spiritual resources; shelter? Let’s not take these basic tenets of survival for granted.
- Debunk death myths. What did our oppressors teach us about death? How have these teachings kept us submissive and obedient? How do we liberate ourselves from these lies?
- Reclaim your own beliefs and share them. What do we believe about death? If we have children, have we spoken to them of death, taught them about death or are we waiting for them to find out from racist Hollywood zombie movies and glorified violence?
- Offer light. We can offer light to our ancestors by lighting candles, or we can offer light with the love energy of our own spirits. (We can also send love energy to the living which is more effective that throwing shade and sending hate.)
- Live fully!
- Love big! Be brave enough to be vulnerable and receive loads of love. If ever we are hurt, find the lessons in the hurt to grow from. Sometimes these lessons are learned, and we heal with the same people who hurt us. Sometimes we are called to separate from those who refuse to grow with us. Know the difference and honor it.
- Be kind, gentle and loving to our own selves always. That way we practice and perfect being kind, gentle and loving to others.
- Know the mission. Understand why each of us is here. What did we come to do? If we don’t know our specific purpose/ mission, let’s work on finding out. Our dreams, passions and loves are the biggest clue.
- Set out to fulfill OUR mission. Do we work on our dreams daily or do we mostly spend our days working on fulfilling the dreams and missions of others? Let us grow our dreams so that we feel fulfilled, rooted, confident and accomplished. If we rob ourselves of this opportunity, we will walk competing and being at war with anyone we try to work with.
- Live and honor your truth. Those of use living lies or false impersonations of ourselves die a little each day we persist in this charade.
- Internalize/ not externalize. Own the power to our own fulfillment. Stop placing blame on everybody for what you have or don’t have, have or haven’t done. We die a slow death when we give our power up to others like this. We slowly kill a person’s spirit when we place this heavy ass load on them.
- Scan our tribe, our blood and chosen tribe. Acknowledge each person as part of the mission. Grow conscious as to their role in our lives, the lessons they come to teach, how they support, grow or hinder the mission. Then choose your tribe more strategically.
- Envision what we each hope to accomplish here that will fulfill us. Ensure this list is not mostly comprised of material things. Think: How do these things catapult my spirit to higher places. Remember the car, the job and the house ain’t coming with us.
- Know: what do I believe around death? What do I believe around God, if I believe in God? Know the difference between what we’ve been taught and what we believe in our own hearts. We might have been taught things that do not serve us, do not speak to our truth. Discard those things and craft our own beliefs at the service of our most authentic truth.
- Do we and why do we fear death? What has loss taught us about fearing death?
- What has loss taught us about living?
- Decolonize health. Do we fear death but are actively making choices to welcome sickness and dis-ease into our bodies? Let’s vow to live in our fullest truth, step away from unsafe spaces and unsafe people, vow to ensure our well-being always. Be wary of the foods and chemicals we ingest and how these either provide vitality or poison to our system. Let’s take control over our own health and healing, placing self-care at center. Explore the possibilities of natural healing-healing foods, herbs, plants, essential oils, crystals, teas, tinctures. Some of these are free and come straight from the land.
- Pay attention to and heal trauma. Let’s scan our mind, memory, hearts and bodies for unspoken, unhealed traumas. Find them and speak them, write them, work on them, heal them. Do not let them set into some hidden cells in some hidden crevice to rise later as a painful cyst, tumor, illness.
- Listen to our bodies. Our bodies have a unique language that they use to communicate with us. Many times, it is the language of pain. Know to stop, take a break, give it what it needs (foods it craves, rest, etc.) If you crave a juicy steak or burger (and are a carnivore), your body may be needing iron. If you crave a banana, or coffee, your body may perceive a migraine coming on and is asking for potassium or caffeine to fight it. Learn to block outside chatter and honor the inherent wisdom of our bodies. When I was nursing my two sons, there were days that all they did was sleep and nurse excessively, or so I thought. Lo and behold, the next day a fever would appear. Their bodies, anticipating the attack of some infection, would fight it by taking more rest and more breastmilk, filled with more antibodies. They did this instinctively. Why do we adults unlearn this along the way? Lastly, when the language of pain speaks, and we cannot decipher, find an interpreter: (masseuse, chiropractor, acupuncturist, reiki master, midwife, doctor!) In whatever order or choose them all.
- Protect our energy. Our spirit is energy. If our body was a fan, it would have to plug into some energy source to get those blades spinning and the wind blowing. Our spirit is that energy. If it transformed and went elsewhere our body would be left lifeless. How do we use our energy? Are we surrounded by energy vampires that suck the life out of us? Are we able to invest our energy in beautiful ways to help others? If so, we should feel revitalized, not wiped out, run-down, exhausted and sick. If so, we are giving too much energy away.
- Decolonize Mental Health. The blues, feeling down, depressed, anxious are understandable and common. If we do nothing about it, these can get worse and start to affect us physiologically. A therapist is a beautiful thing. Someone gets paid to hear you vent all your shit. They are trained professionals who can masterfully listen and then get you to arrive at awesome solutions by asking the right questions and pointing you in the right direction. It is a matter of identifying someone whose energy works for you. Support groups do not have to be formal. It can be a group of friends experiencing the same situation, getting together to share and plan together. Incorporate play into your day. Sit and color, draw, kick around a ball, use play doh. Release steam, pressure, anxiety before it blows up some place inside you or you explode on another person. Normalize conversations about these feelings so no one must suffer in silence and descend into more serious forms of depression.
- Substance Abuse. Difficult realities have too many of us self-medicating then doing so to the point of abuse. Take care of each other. Stop inviting friends for a drink then side eye them when they’ve had too much or leave them to stumble down the street alone or get in their car to drive. If your drinking friends are good enough to drink with, then you should commit to raising the conversation when it reveals itself to be more than just a happy time out. Alcohol and drugs are responsible for how many accidents, overdoses, deaths? People have no correct judgement while under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Some even take their lives while under the influence. Might they have made this choice while sober? Drugs and alcohol abuse are symptoms of a deeper problem. We cannot decolonize death without having firm strategies and alternatives to our own and other’s approaches to self-medication.
- Restorative Justice. We may be replicating the prison industrial complex in how we judge, condemn and alienate our own for their offenses. At what point do we elevate above unhealthy behaviors by identifying them, holding one accountable, providing resources for mutual healing and helping to overcome these ills in our communities. Our people are not expendable. Let’s not treat each other as replaceable. Doing so is complicit with the oppression that aims at keeping up separated and unhealed. Let’s identify opportunities for restorative justice that protects survivors while thoroughly pursuing solutions to the aggressions arising in our communities.
- Decolonize sleep. Save that “sleep when I’m dead” bullshit. Exactly. If you keep leaving sleep for when you’re dead, that is just how you will end up. Some folks do require more sleep than others. This shifts according to different ages/ circumstances. There is a biological purpose to sleep and rest. It is when our cells regenerate. It is when we heal. Sacrificing sleep is also sacrificing this time for healing and regeneration. Sleep is also the state in which your spirit is free to roam and interact with other spirits, picking up necessary information, knowledge, etc.
- Protect ourselves and our dignity. Set boundaries and honor them. Don’t let others disrespect us. A small part of us dies each time we allow this. Sometimes we cannot prevent this, but we can work to bring justice around the matter or commit to never showing up to that unsafe place or subjecting ourselves to that unsafe person’s company again. Do more than survive, thrive.
- Have one on one death talks with our loved ones. If we believe in the continuance of spirit, come up with a plan, a code and communicate that. It goes a little something like this, “If I go before you and we cannot figure out how to communicate, I will use this symbol to give you a sign that I am ok, that I am sending my love and light.” Can be butterflies, a song, a number, an animal, a color, etc.
- If we believe and want to speak to lost loved ones, let’s do it. Do it, then grant ourselves the gift of stillness to listen. Listen in the quiet moments, listen to our dreams so that we take note of the signs. Let’s trust our senses and believe in the messages we receive. We have believed our oppressors and the lies they teach. How come we won’t believe our ancestors and deny their existence or negate their messages? Let’s realized we’ve been taught to believe anything but ourselves. Let’s overturn it.
- Health care proxy. This is vital for those battling illness. This person knows all our wishes and can advocate on our behalf when we are unable to make decisions for ourselves. There is a form we can fill out at the hospital.
- Get a will or at least make a written agreement with a loved one and have it notarized. If we are parents, what happens to our babies? Who do we trust enough to care for them? And what of our belongings? Who do they go to? Who gets what? What gets donated? For those of us with money saved or coming like a pension, who do we want to receive it? Make it plain. Let’s save our families and save our own spirits from being brought down by loved ones feuding over material, superfluous shit. Material possessions in grief sometimes become an emotional stand-in for the lost loved one which.
- Plan your funeral. Funerals are about 1) What society tells you you gotta do (and this route costs thousands and thousands of dollars and 2). What the family and loved ones feel they want and must do. Decolonize your own death by determining what is special to you and how YOU want to go. Sometimes loved ones are so in tune they create a beautiful memorial based on what they perceive your wishes to be (cuz so many of us just don’t communicate these wishes) or sometimes loved ones OD with over the top shit that ain’t got a mofo to do with the deceased. Make a request. Communicate it. Write it down. Share it.
- Talk to our loved ones about death NOW. Is our love a transcendent love? Will it transcend death? Is this necessary? Have we discussed it? Are we in transcendent relationships designed to empower even beyond death? How do we help avoid our loved ones falling completely apart after we’re gone? Are we raising children in love and liberation to know that we won’t always be around or alive? Let’s liberate our loved ones to live and love freely after we are gone. Don’t wait to have this talk. Don’t wait for an illness. Don’t wait to reach a certain age. My brother was diagnosed with cancer at 41, died at 43 and during his battle would say, I could walk outside and get hit by a bus. This was his extreme way of responding to the revelation of his mortality, but he was right. Accidents happen. Hateful freaks on killing sprees are happening more and more. Some go to pray at a southern black church or at a synagogue and wake up dead. We need to honor the shift in our thinking that this brings about. These are warnings to not take ourselves, each other, anything, for granted.
- Suicide Prevention. No quiero morir, pero vivir me asusta más. (I don’t want to die but living scares me more.) These lyrics marking another time of Draco Rosa’s music career speak to a whole other shift in reality among us. If we fear death so much, clinging to life as it’s the only one we will ever have, the one we hope will last forever, what happens when living becomes too grueling, and death appears to be the lesser evil? What are the implications for the person wanting out, their spirit and their loved ones when suicide is contemplated as the answer? If we are biologically programmed to fear death and to operate always with a survival instinct, what conditions have drastically shifted that would make someone choose inflicting the ultimate form of self-harm, their own death, over actually living. Suicide continues to be the severe problem that no one wants to talk about and no one knows how to address. Perhaps more open dialogues around death and life and the purpose of life would be a start towards working collectively and lovingly to craft compassion and better lives for ourselves and one another. Even if we demystified the taboo subject of death by speaking of it more intimately, we might get more people to open up more about their fears, their vulnerabilities and their despair. As most reward strength and martyrdom, we leave those feeling vulnerable and ever conscious of their mortality to fend for themselves in silence.
- We are not martyrs! Sometimes we use getting sick as a badge of honor. How tired and how sick we are is a measure of how hard we worked, how much we do. We still subscribe to this martyrdom shit we’ve been taught. What are we subjecting ourselves to? Are we listening when our body says it must stop? What is our heart saying when it beats erratically? Are we internalizing the tactics of the slave master? How many of us work not from sun up to sun down but keep going till midnight and beyond? How many of us have woken up in the middle of the night to start the work day before our side of the world wakes up? How do we push our bodies to the brink? We have been genetically programmed as people of color to view ourselves as mules who work incessantly. We emulate a new form of conquest with overworking, earning and overspending. We still measure ourselves and live by this bullshit. Stop!
- Real loving support in illness, death and grief. If we could better understand our mortality and that we WILL ALL die, then we can understand that our bodies need rest. That when our bodies communicate pain, they are intricate systems that alert us to what needs a break or fixing. We can stop praising or judging people for their vulnerabilities and learn to honor them, work with these vulnerabilities. We can stop expecting post-partum women to hand their babies off to someone else and jump back up in a few weeks to work long ass hours. We could all just collectively honor how simultaneously strong, vulnerable, beautiful, fragile and fierce we all are. Then we could honestly love and appreciate each other versus competing, fighting and smothering one another.
- We are our own healers!
- We are our own liberators!
Let’s bust this myth: we do not sleep after death. We work hard. We have access to information that our limited earthly eyes, ears and bodies could not gather or make sense of. We have a complete picture. We know where we triumphed and where we failed. We know the lessons that we heeded and those we missed. We know what work we have left to do. A spirit’s real state always, whether incarnate or not, whether living or dead, is conscious and active…always…all the time. It is your body that sleeps, that rests. Your spirit energy is always on, always active.
Like you, I am a spirit. In this existence I am came as Yasmín Hernández Quirindongo, born and raised in Brooklyn to parents from Ponce, Puerto Rico. I have repatriated to my ancestral homeland. If I, today, wanted to travel to the moon, I would need to put on a space suit, with equipment to make myself adaptable to that environment. I came to this earth in the body of a cis-girl, grew into a cis-woman with brown skin, fitting of this tropical environment my parents hail from.
One day, Yasmin will die. Her body will stay here. My essence, my energy and consciousness will go back to traveling space and time until, together with a divine committee of love, light and intelligence, I, in all my expansive transcendence, choose another assignment. It could be here on Earth again. I could be a man. It could be elsewhere. I can be intersexed, or I can be transcendent and genderless. This is my truth. As long as I stand firm in this truth, nothing or no one can colonize me, confine me to a limited space or geography. Nothing can render me smaller than the greatness I embody and that I will continue to embody even as a spirit nebula of love and light.