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Inside Dia de los Muertos

Otis College Students' Tribute to "Metamorphosis" to be Unveiled in Hollywood at Annual Celebration

For the last nine years associate professor Heather Joseph-Witham, Ph.D. has ended up in the cemetery with her students.

Joseph-Witham, an expert in folklore and mythology, teaches social science courses such as “Vampire Lit and Lore,” “Fairy Tales and Myths,” and “The Witch in Religion and Society,” at Otis College of Art and Design. Her “Modern Mysticism and the Afterlife” course, in its ninth year, includes a collaboration with Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Joseph-Witham, who has served as an expert on many television shows including, True Nightmares, Mythbusters, Sightings, Tornado Week, Real Ghosts, Magic Mysteries and Miracles, Animal Icons, A&E Biography, The Other Side, Exploring the Unknown, and Food Network Challenge, is currently researching and writing about gnome enthusiasts.

We caught up with Joseph-Witham to learn more about her class and the annual Dia de los Muertos Festival taking place at Hollywood Forever Cemetery this weekend.

You teach a number of intriguing courses at Otis College. Tell us more about “Modern Mysticism and the Afterlife.”

In the class, we explore the concept of the soul/spirit.  Do we have one, what is it and what can it do for people while they are alive and where does it go and what can it do when the human body dies? 

We look at the spirit as viewed through modern mysticism, mystic individuals, and social movements.  We discuss cross-cultural perspectives regarding death and life after death, the customs surrounding these beliefs and the eternal search by individuals and cultures for meaning within these concepts.  We explore rites of intensification that allow people to bring death into the life cycle.  We also explore how people seek to contact those in the afterlife and how it affects how they choose to live in this life. 

There are many goals for this course, but most importantly I want students to have a space to discuss and explore their own identities and diverse perspectives regarding a universal experience that fosters deeply held beliefs, customs, and rituals.

Day of the Dead altar

An altar from one of Joseph-Witham's previous classes.

How do the students react to looking into these topics?

This class engenders tremendous reactions from students.  Most of them assume they know what family members or even their religious or spiritual group believes about the afterlife.  In the course they perform ethnography projects and find out things they never suspected which makes them want to question more, explore further, and conduct more research. 

We have some wonderful and surprising discussions in class – it is a rare space where they can discuss and analyze the role of death, life, spirituality, skepticism, magic, ghost hunting and mediums safely and without ridicule. While our students are predominantly quite young, they do wonder about the central question – do they go on?

What is the Dia de los Muertos celebration and how is your class involved in the event?

Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a syncretic holiday that was created through a combination of belief systems including Catholic All Souls and All Saints days and the rituals of the indigenous peoples in Mexico. Through migration and popular culture it has become a well-known event in the U.S. as well. It is a time for celebration, remembrance, community, tradition and is a reaffirmation of life. 

Our site partner for the class is the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which is one of the most gorgeous places in Los Angeles. The cemetery has hosted a Dia de los Muertos festival for 17 years and they do an amazing job of bringing together a variety of fine and folk artists, altar artisans, dancers, musicians, and costumers with the diverse cultures of Los Angeles. The people at Hollywood Forever are wonderful, and they promote creativity and community with the celebration, and they do it in a grand and spectacular manner. The festival is huge, fun, at times emotional, beautiful, exhausting, and wonderful.

Each year the class creates a grand, interactive altar in about a 24-foot long space.  These altars provide a pathway to celebrate and bring back those in the beyond.  We are able to experience people reactions to our altar at the celebration, which is pretty amazing.  We also explore that particular syncretic approach to death and the afterlife, and research the function of the festival for the participants.

We strive to make the altar interactive, so that people can enter and comment, write or record something.  It is a piece of ephemeral folk art that exists only in one moment of time and evolves throughout the celebration as people enter and leave pieces of themselves through their thoughts and actions.  

Last year, for example, one small element of our altar was a table dedicated to Ray Bradbury.  The students had set up an old typewriter next to a calavera and images and books of Bradbury’s.  People came through and wrote and wrote.  By the end of the day, we had really what amounted to a book of thoughts, poetry, and stories.  It was incredible. 

Day of the Dead

Altar to Ray Bradbury, from the 2015 Dia de los Muertos celebration. 

Who else has been honored with altars?

Each altar has a different focus or honors different people.  The first year was dedicated to various artists: Warhol/Kahlo/Dali.  The next year it was Dr. Seuss and the students created a giant red and white hat people could walk into where they heard recorded. Seuss poetry. 

We have honored space pioneers including Laika the dog, and visionaries like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, and Lewis Carroll. Last year the class could not agree on one person – so they settled on writers that take you to other worlds, and they created spaces for Shel Silverstein, Ray Bradbury, and Hunter S. Thompson. 

The most challenging day of the course is when we decide, discuss, and debate about what our altar theme or honoree will be.  The students are very passionate about who they admire and wish to honor so that day can become pretty crazy. 

And this year’s altar?

This year, oddly, there was little debate.  After throwing around names like Tolkien and Disney, they went with the concept of Metamorphosis as symbolized by the Monarch Butterfly.  The monarch has been closely related to afterlife traditions.  Not only do they return to parts of Mexico during this time of year, but they have been seen as carrying the souls of the departed, or even being the souls themselves.  So, our altar this year celebrates this transformation from caterpillar to butterfly, to the beyond and back, which evokes both awe and beauty.  The students also each created a figure of one of their own ancestors to dangle from our monarch adorned ‘tree of life.' 

You can check out this year’s altar at the annual Hollywood Forever Dia de los Muertos celebration on Saturday, October 29 from noon to midnight.