In Praise of Life--and Death : Holiday: Day of the Dead celebrants gathered at an Orange cemetery to spend the day with ancestors in keeping with Mexican tradition.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a celebration of life and death.

With the hills of Orange Canyon serving as a backdrop on a warm Saturday afternoon, more than 1,000 Latinos prayed the Rosary as they wound through a cemetery to an altar adorned with marigolds and a rainbow of paper flowers.

They had gathered at the Mass held in Holy Sepulcher Cemetery to commemorate Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

On either side of the altar, 10 smaller ofrendas (offerings) sponsored by participating Roman Catholic churches were decorated with bouquets of marigolds, candles, pan de muerto (bread of the dead shaped like skulls and glazed with honey and sugar) and skulls made of paper, plastic or sugar.

On one ofrenda, names of the deceased being remembered by parishioners were handwritten on a sheet of paper and framed, and a Rosary was placed over the frame.

"This particular feast is not intended to frighten people like Halloween," Msgr. Jaime Soto explained before the Mass. "The motivation behind the feast is to spend the day with our ancestors, to spend the day with our loved ones who have died."

Dia de los Muertos is a longstanding tradition in Mexico that is beginning to be noticed in Orange County. And organizers of the festival said they hoped it would be the start of an annual local event--an embracing of another facet of Mexican culture.

The feast day blends the customs of All Souls' Day in the Roman Catholic Church--a holy day set aside to remember the dead--with centuries-old beliefs of Indians of central and southern Mexico. In an attempt to convert the pre-Columbian Mexican Indians to Catholicism, many of the Indian rituals were allowed to continue as part of the religious day.

In the years since, celebrants have used the day to remember their loved ones and to accept death as a part of life.

Traditional observance of the holiday includes setting up an ofrenda in the home, decorated with a photograph of the deceased, mementos and pan de muerto. Sometimes the favorite food of the deceased is prepared and also set on the altar.

As she sat under the shade of a tree in the cemetery, 51-year-old Hortencia Bautista of Santa Ana smiled as she remembered the huge celebrations held in Mexico on Dia de los Muertos. Flowers and sugar canes are sold by vendors to crowds of people who visit the cemeteries that day.

"The people stay all day," she said. "Some take gorditas, or whatever, to eat. . . . It's like a fair."

She added they also say the Rosary, wash the tombstones and sometimes repair the lettering.

Josefina M. Regla, 68, likened the commemoration to the Memorial Day celebrations held to honor American war heroes. Only in Mexico, Dia de los Muertos remembers everyone, she said.

Soto, the Hispanic vicar of the Diocese of Orange, said he only recently learned the significance of the holy day in Mexico. He wanted to begin a communitywide celebration in Orange County to further understanding of the custom.

"The traditions and customs that often appear macabre are attempts by us to look into the face of death and see hope and to discover a belief in the Resurrection" of Christ, he said.

During the Mass concelebrated by 13 local priests, some of the worshipers wiped tears from their eyes as they prayed for those who had died.

But Soto told the congregation that as they walk among the dead, they are committing an act of love.

"We say that death is part of life," Soto said during the homily. "But more profoundly, we say that the love of God takes us from death to life. And everyone who lives in this love shall pass from death to life."

Obviously moved by the service filled with Spanish hymns accompanied by guitars was Jesus Torres Pulido, 70, a Tijuana resident who was visiting in Orange County for the day.

"This is so beautiful," Torres said. "Never in my life had I seen a celebration as beautiful as this."

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