Elementary school celebrates life on Day of the Dead

Nov 1, 2022

When Wareham Elementary School art teacher Nancy Newton first heard about Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos), she thought the traditional Mexican holiday was “creepy.” She quickly realized that the festival, which honors departed loved ones and treats death as a natural part of life, was anything but.

“It is a great celebration of life,” Newton said. “It’s full of color, it’s full of history. I think it is a wonderful emphasis on the life of someone who has passed away.”

Wearing colorful facial tattoos (full-blown skull makeup would have “scared the little ones”), Newton and her students put on an art show at the Elementary School on Day of the Dead, Tuesday, Nov. 1. Newton made 40 t-shirts for faculty to wear that day, and wore a Day of the Dead-themed outfit every day in the week leading up to the show.

Students of every grade level created paper mosaics, skeletons, sugar skulls and butterflies. The butterflies, which migrate to Mexico every winter, represent the souls of the dead returning to visit their families. Each sugar skull represents a dead loved one. The colorful decorations on them reflect the colorful life that person lived. The skulls are usually rained away or eaten by ants shortly after their creation, representing the fragility of life. 

“This skeleton I thought was really cool,” said second grader Lilliana DeBoise. “I love skeletons.”

Second grader Juliana Manasour finds skeletons “terrifying,” but she still decorated a paper skeleton for the event. This is her first time celebrating Day of the Dead, and she likes it so far.

“We really emphasize the celebration of life,” Newton said. “Not the death part. What a great life they lived. That’s the part that should be celebrated.”

Dozens of portraits of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo lined the walls. Students made papel picado, a Mexican paper cutout craft, covered with drawings and messages of remembrance such as “I miss you greate greate grandma” and “I miss you great great Lily. I’ve never met you.” 

“A lot of cats have been memorialized,” said health and wellness teacher Lisa Myette.

Wareham Elementary School faculty members filled an ofrenda, an altar honoring the dead, with photos of deceased relatives, pets and coworkers. Newton added photos of her father, father-in-law, grandparents, great aunt and other relatives.

“You can focus on the tragedy part,” she said, “but that’s not what they would want.”

The art show was a joint project between the school’s Art Department, Health and Wellness Department and STEAM Department. STEAM is a version of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education which focuses on how the Arts intertwine with scientific disciplines. 

“Even in engineering, there’s a lot of art involved,” said STEAM teacher Elizabeth Hayes. “You have to have a very creative mind to be involved, and all those aspects of being creative are included in science and technology.”

Fourth graders cut and glued moveable skeletal hands out of paper, which Hayes called “an early introduction to robotics.” Third graders made virtual papel picado on Google Slides, and the teachers 3D printed miniature skulls.

“It’s about accepting other cultures and accepting diversity,” said Myette, who wants her students to learn not only about their own physical, social and emotional health, but the health of their community. “We’ve talked a lot about not only celebrating our families, but realizing that everyone is connected.”

Myette, who is from California, is used to seeing Day of the Dead celebrations.

“Death happens in all cultures, and all families,” she said. “We really focus on how, during Dia de los Muertos, the community comes together. No one celebrates alone.”