Northern Illinois University Press

A Midwestern Day of the Dead

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Each time I pass the “Elvis Lives!” curbside shrine on the Lincoln Highway in Clarence, Iowa, I’m reminded of the artistry of our homegrown Day of the Dead. On Main, the King’s albums, spray-painted platinum, pinwheel above the killer fins of a Pink Cadillac. Mind you, it’s not just Elvis and Marilyn, those resident souls of Middle America’s Heartbreak Hotels, to whom we pay our respects each November, but also to our own, those we lay to rest with whatever personal effects promise to survive the coming winter—seed-corn cap, sewing needle, worry stone.  

This year, as Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and the Day of the Dead culminate a grim election season, I’m reminded of the damaging double standard directed at our homegrown Midwestern Gothic. For decades, rural and small-town Americans have quietly endured down-in-the-mouth cultural representations of them as, in effect, Yesterday’s People—human embodiments of the rusty, dusty Mobil Oil and Coca-Cola signs kept alive in the antiquaries on which today’s gentrified Pickers depend. And yet despite our native talent for recognizing the fragility of things, for conserving, for marking pasts and passings, rural Midwesterners are consistently labeled Debby Downers, irredeemable nostalgics, and cultural dinosaurs. To hear the nation’s cognoscenti tell it, we’re wild-eyed and willful hold-outs preferring Rip Van Winkle sleep over the excitations of being culturally woke.   

Despite the widespread culture-shaming of us for our alleged obsession with the past, our sincere veneration of ancestors who’ve passed on to the “other side,” and yet guide us still, makes us exceptionally alive. I’ve spent November nights deep in the rural cementerios of Michoacán, Mexico, feeling right at home, as the blessed Dead are honored in a ritual known as the “wake of the deceased.” At the Torneos de Calaveras or “tournaments of the skulls,” the good people of Patzcuaro, Mexico, pay poetic tribute to their kin with dark humor that would suit Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone or Grant Wood’s American Gothic.

Despite the widespread culture-shaming of us for our alleged obsession with the past, our sincere veneration of ancestors who’ve passed on to the “other side,” and yet guide us still, makes us exceptionally alive.

In rural Mexico, fatalism is elevated to folkway. It is a funereal art kept alive without shame or sinister association with cultural conservatism. In fact, throughout Latin America fatalism as artful and authentic as we practice it here gets cheered, yet coastal Americans often condemn our version as darkly déclassé—the Way of the Gray and Aged living out their interminable days in the cultural and political purgatory they call Flyover Country.  

The value we assign our blithe spirits can be seen in the privileged position we grant our necropolises—not swept to the side as they are in the so-called Places-of-the-Now, but plunked down on the main road into town, occupying the kind of prime real estate urban planners might reserve for Bed, Bath, and Beyond.

Such placement requires that we pass our dearly departed each day on the way to and from gas and groceries, joy and sadness mixing there with the hard shock of memory, mixing with the mundane to-do lists of the living. Such tangible emotions fly in the face of hurtful regional stereotypes that depict us as woefully repressed and wholly unfeeling. In an age of cultural sensitivity whose time has come, is it not possible for a steadfast-in-death people to have as our calling card not joie de vivre but sens-de-morte? 

The value we assign our blithe spirits can be seen in the privileged position we grant our necropolises—not swept to the side as they are in the so-called Places-of-the-Now, but plunked down on the main road into town, occupying the kind of prime real estate urban planners might reserve for Bed, Bath, and Beyond.

This is what it means to live out the truth in the phrase: the haunt of home. We erect roadside staves and lay out benefit spreads for elders recently passed, for the martyred young on their crosses who will never have a highway named after them nor steal a warm kiss beneath frozen blankets. For them we don our coveralls and overboots and eat soup, our elbows resting heavily on fold-out tables in the afterlife of some community center or high school gymnasium. Our coming together to eat and bow our heads is a prayer for safe passage, for the inextinguishable thing that warms us here, together.  

*Featured photo from the Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress.

Zachary Michael Jack is an award-winning author of many books, including, most recently Country Views and Wish You Were Here. Jack is Professor of English at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, a seventh-generation Iowan, and a member of the board of directors for the Midwestern History Association.

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