Manchester University
Oak Leaves

November 9, 2018

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This display was put together by Dr. Arturo Yanez, Associate Professor of Modern Languages.

Photo provided

Día de los Muertos Exhibition to Help MU Community Become Culturally Aware

Erin Brock


Manchester University began what may become a new tradition cele­brating death. Professor Beate Gilliar, who teaches various English courses along with a first-year seminar about life and death, was inspired to bring her teachings to life by acknowledging death in all its various ways. To do this, she did what many others might think of as absurd—she brought a coffin to campus.

The coffin, tucked in the back corner of library for a week, was not only on display for stu­dents to look at but was left open, inviting students, faculty and staff to lie down in. The invitation to experience death in a conscious way did not stop at the coffin. Stu­dents from Gilliar’s FYS course put together pillars that represent­ed various aspects of death such as the suicide forest in Japan and different ways of celebrating death such as Día de los Muertos or “Day of the Dead,” a holiday commonly celebrated in Hispanic cultures.

To add to the education and awareness of death, Professor Arturo Yañez, with the help of his wife and other volunteers, assem­bled and decorated altars that one would commonly see in Hispanic cultures during Día de los Muer­tos. The altars can vary in looks, but they all share fundamental commonalities. “Each level rep­resents something different,” Yañez explains. “The bottom level is pur­gatory, the middle level is earth, and the top level is heaven.”

While some interpreta­tions of the levels vary, they tend to follow traditional Catholic beliefs. Altars also commonly include pic­tures of the loved ones they are dedicated to along with their fa­vorite foods. Yañez says the food is placed there so that when the loved ones return after a long time of traveling, they can have some­thing to eat.

However, being from Venezuela, Yañez does not typical­ly celebrate Día de los Muertos in the way it is being represented at Manchester. “Most people believe it is a Mexican culture celebration and I agree,” Yañez says about the difference in celebrations among Hispanic cultures. “[In Venezuela], we clean tombs and bring flowers to our loved ones to pay our re­spect.”

Despite this tradition being a primarily Mexican one, it was important to bring it to Manchester in hopes of educating the community on death in other cultures. As diversity increases in Manchester, maintaining the cul­tural awareness becomes increas­ingly more important.

Manchester acknowl­edges these differences through various multicultural clubs and activities, along with events such as the International Fair; but there are other differences that are not commonly acknowledged. “Peo­ple have different views of life, but what if we share different views of death?” asks Yañez when dis­cussing the importance of cultural awareness.

According to him, this exhibition is important in educat­ing others on topics they may not be otherwise aware of. By looking at things through a unique per­spective such as lying in a coffin or snacking on Mexican dishes next to an altar, one can better grasp the message that is trying to be con­veyed.

Despite decling to get in the coffin, Yañez is very aware of the concept of dying. “We nev­er think about death, but one day we’ll be there,” he explains. One goal of this week is for the concept of death to become more normal­ized through the array of exhibi­tions and presentations.

Gilliar worked diligently to open the community’s minds to death and other endings (also the title of her FYS). By inviting speak­ers who have had experience with death one way or another, she went down a path very few choose to go down—a path that normalizes death and accepts it for what it is. Not only did she wander this path, but she brought many students, faculty and staff along with her, bringing all different cultures and backgrounds to guide the way.

With the help of library staff Jill Lichtsinn and other stu­dents, beautiful displays were set up all around the library to edu­cate each passerby on the ideas of death. The event ended on Sunday, November 4, but Gilliar hopes that there will be something of similar appearance next year.

If students are interested in learning more about Día de los Muertos and other Hispanic cul­tures, Yañez invites them to sign up for his 200-level Spanish course on pre-Hispanic society and cul­ture in the spring.