Dan Krieger: Past lives at mission on Day of the Dead

October 15, 2011 

The Dorn Pyramid in the Odd Fellows Cemetery has greeted visitors entering San Luis Obispo from the south for more than a hundred years. It’s not as visible from the freeway as it once was from South Higuera Street. In the days before Alex and Phyllis Madonna built their landmark Madonna Inn, the Dorn Pyramid was a beacon welcoming the visitor.

Some visitors understood the pyramid’s role as a Masonic symbol. Almost every visitor understood that its purpose was to shelter the mortal remains of an individual or family.

Burial sites tell archaeologists a great deal about a culture. So much of what we know about ancient Egypt or China comes from the excavations at Giza and in the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank at Luxor and the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, with its army of life-size terra cotta soldiers discovered in 1974.

How a society treats the dead usually reveals details about values, social stratification and prejudice. Paupers are often shunted aside into unmarked burial plots. The rich often have large monuments or private mausoleums.

All Souls Day, sometimes called the Day of the Dead, is Nov. 2, but in secular cultures such as our own, it gets lost in the Halloween celebrations.

This year I’m inviting readers to participate in two different ways of celebrating All Souls Day.

The first is a rare opportunity to experience a traditional religious ceremony celebrating the Day of the Dead at California’s third-oldest and most remote mission, San Antonio de Padua, at 1 p.m. Oct. 29.

The mass will be the same Latin Mass celebrated on that site in 1771. There will be prayers chanted in the Salinan language by tribal elders and children.

An especially joyful part of the liturgy will be the music by Remie Campomenosi, John Warren, the choir from Mission San Miguel and guest singers.

The “Angus Dei” (Lamb of God) is from “La Misa en Sol” composed by Padre Juan Bautista Sancho, O.F.M. (1772-1830), who led the best-known of mission orchestras at Mission San Antonio. Father Sancho is buried at the foot of Mission San Antonio’s altar.

Mission San Antonio is about 30 miles northwest of Camp Roberts along Monterey County Road G-18, reached at the Jolon turnoff.

Be certain to carry your car registration and proof of insurance and IDs for all passengers to enter Fort Hunter-Liggett, which surrounds the mission.

You are also invited to my traditional Halloween Day tour of the historic Old Mission Cemetery in San Luis Obispo on Oct. 31, meeting at the Bridge Street entrance at 4:30 p.m.

This is a “nonscary,” respectful and historic approach to understand the role of burial places in interpreting times past.

Both events are free and open to the public.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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