Although death and dying are not topics usually covered in elementary school curricula, I had a powerful experience when I taught a unit on Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a Latin-American holiday celebrated in early November that honors deceased family members and friends. The unit helped integrate an understanding of other cultures into my second/ third grade classroom of predominantly white students.
With the exception of one student, whose mother was Mexican, none of my other students were familiar with Day of the Dead. Though the customs of Día de los Muertos vary regionally, one common element is constructing commemorative altars. The relatives decorate altars with photos of the departed, their favorite mementos and foods, and an adornment of flowers and candles. Most people honor Día de los Muertos by remembering deceased infants and children on November 1 (All Saints Day) and adults on November 2 (All Souls Day). It is thought that the spirits of the dead are expected to pay a holiday visit home and should be provided with bountiful sustenance for the journey.
Most children in the classroom had not experienced the death of a family member. But they had heard stories of relatives who had died. I asked each student to decide which deceased family member they would like to commemorate for our Día de los Muertos unit. At the same time, I communicated with the parents of my students my intentions for our study of Día de los Muertos.
Through interviews with family members and looking through family photos, students discovered valuable information about the family members that they were honoring. Each student created a diorama inside an empty shoebox, where they placed tiny photos, mementos, and food made from clay. We placed the dioramas - referred to as altars - in one corner of the classroom. Students decided that when they entered this area, they should remove their shoes and become silent.
The students loved visiting the altar area. Though it was not blocked off in any particular way, it held a sacred kind of warmth. Students could often be found "speaking with the ancestors," both their own and those of their classmates. Other times they would comment to one another about the family members being honored.