Day of the Dead allure grows

Julie Cook's mom would have pooh-poohed Día de los Muertos and its traditions of laying out food for gleeful spirits, dedicating a room to a shrine and adorning it with symbolic offerings.

But an altar sits in a sunny corner of Cook's Mesa home in memory of Naomi Swedmark, who died four years ago at the age of 75 after a battle with emphysema.

Cook hopes her first Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) memorial will help her cope with her mom's death and celebrate her life by playing some Glen Miller big band music and putting olive bread and goat cheese alongside her mom's wedding ring and photo.

"If I'm going to celebrate her life, it should be at a time where there are lots of other people who are celebrating at the same time," said Cook, 57, a self-employed businesswoman. "It's almost like a group effort. And it's great to let the rest of us non-traditionalists in on a secret."

No longer obscure, Mexico's Día de los Muertos is appealing to many Valley residents like Cook, who are embracing the holiday as their own. They say it helps them deal with the deaths of loved ones and have fun.

A lighthearted take on death is celebrated today (All Saints Day) and Nov. 2 All Souls Day) across the state. Día de Los Muertos is a blend of indigenous Aztec, Mayan and Roman Catholic customs and beliefs originating in Mexico. Day of the Dead typically falls on Nov. 2.

According to lore, it's a time for the dead to return home from the otherworld, visit loved ones, feast on favorite foods and listen to music.

And like many holidays in this country, Day of the Dead's popularity is becoming a commercial success.

Business is alive

Considered morbid and macabre by some, the millennia-old ritual has become big business for major retailers like Wal-Mart, Target, Starbucks and home décor company Z Gallerie. They have stocked shelves with Day of the Dead-themed products, from tuxedoed skeleton hanging lights to sugar-iced skull lollipops and skeleton tea lights.

Wal-Mart, which is Mexico's largest retailer, is selling Día de los Muertos items online - some itemssold out almost immediately.

"Some people find it really, really disgusting, the commercialization of ancient traditions," said Peter Garcia, an assistant professor in the Chicana and Chicano Studies Department at Arizona State University.

"But there's a market for it."

More Arizonans of all backgrounds are stepping into small shops like Sueños in central Phoenix in search of skeleton figurines, skull molds and papel picado, colorful tissue paper cut with designs that is hung in front of the altar.

While no one tracks specific sales figures on the holiday, Arizona business owners say the celebration has increasingly become a moneymaker.

"This is becoming more American," said Robert Bitto, owner of the Mexican import store at Seventh Avenue and Indian School Road. "Our Puritan heritage tells us death should be a solemn thing. Mexicans say death should be looked at as a transition, that it's not an end."

Bitto's Web site,, is going "berserk," he said. First-timers from Scottsdale to Flagstaff are buying up Sueños' sugar skulls and special incense to draw in and guide the sprits. And his sales run second only to Christmas.

"It speaks a lot to the popularity of the holiday," he said.

Paying tribute

While Day of the Dead is fun for some, it's healing for others.

Erica and Pablo Luna's daughter would have turned 5 on Halloween.

But there was no little girl to blow out the five candles on the piece of homemade chocolate cake this year. Lali Luna drowned in her nana's pool in May and now her family can only remember Lali with a 4-foot shrine that shines in the window of a Mexican import shop in central Phoenix.

The small collection of her favorite things, a grubby My Little Pony, a Mexican señorita dress and a tube of raspberry-flavored lip gloss are an ofrenda, or offering, for her spirit to enjoy when it returns home tomorrow on Día de los Muertos.

Celebrating life

"A lot of people would think it's an altar of death, but it's an altar to celebrate her life," mother Erica, 24, said. "It hurts, but it's kind of therapeutic because it helps me remember who she was."

Lali's soul will return to earth Tuesday, the tradition says. In her honor, friends and family will visit the ofrenda and add to the collection of the pink and white piggy bank, the packages of Chicklets and a red rope rosary.

But perhaps as a sign of the Americanization of the day, friends will lay store-bought candles on the altar, replacing the traditional handmade candles and nursery-grown flowers will take the place of homegrown ones.

Families likely won't slave over the stove to make mole and tamales for Lali's spirit. They'll pick the food up at a supermarket instead. And sugar skulls, the symbol of death and rebirth - they'll pick them up at the store, too.

Tonight, Pablo Luna will visit his daughter's grave. He'll light candles so her soul will find her way back home. His friends will gather for a vigil and a Día de Los Muertos procession.

Selling an idea

Commercialization of the ritual does not change the meaning for the Luna family. While retailers are selling the idea, they aren't selling out the tradition, they say. But others believe it compromises the sanctity of the rite, no matter how merry it is.

"I hate the idea of Bearista bears for the Day of the Dead. Yuck," said Hazel Rugg, owner of Latin-flavored Picante shop in Tucson, referring to Starbuck's signature teddy bear memorabilia. "I'm sure some people are going to go for it. But what can I say? If it promotes the culture, that's a good thing isn't it?"

In Mesa, Cook doesn't hold fast to the traditional Day of the Dead beliefs. She doesn't believe her mom's spirit will be released for a day of play.

"It's important to remember people who have passed on," she says. "I wanted this to be a very thoughtful thing. (And) look at how it makes my world so much bigger."