When hundreds of worshipers gathered at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines Nov. 2, they did so both to pray for their deceased loved ones and to demonstrate that those loved ones are still very much a part of the communion of saints. “It’s very much a cultural expression of life after death,” said Father Esequiel Sánchez. “The idea is that we are still connected to members of our families.” At the shrine, families are invited to create altars in a makeshift cemetery on the grounds starting at 4 p.m. They gather starting at 6 p.m. in the St. Joseph Chapel for a reading of the names of the deceased, followed by Mass at 7 p.m. After Mass, there is a procession to the altars, which are individually blessed by priests and deacons, Sánchez said. “The altars are very different,” he said. “Some have a lot of pictures, some have fewer pictures. Some have a lot of flowers, some have a lot of food.” After the blessing, the evening’s celebration gets under way, with music and face painting and food to share. The celebration is based on traditions that began in southern Mexico and spread to other regions, he said. “People can visit other people’s altars, and the best part of it is not only the sharing of the food but the sharing of the stories,” he said. “Who was this person? Why were they significant to you? How did they die?” That discussion of death is important, he said. “It’s important to talk about how other people come to their end so that we are not afraid,” Sánchez said. Some deaths have caused deep pain — suicides, perhaps, or murders, Sánchez said. Celebrating those people’s lives at the Día de los Muertos allows their families to talk about them and put their deaths in the context of their lives. For others, including those who could not travel to Mexico or other countries to see relatives before they died or for their funerals, the celebration can serve as a sort of wake. “If they can’t go for reasons of money or health or immigration status, this is almost a way for them to process that,” Sánchez said. The shrine began its celebration in part to counter secular observances that have sprung up everywhere from public schools to workplaces. Those observances might have the altars, also known as “ofrendas,” but they don’t have the grounding in the feast of All Souls or the belief that the human family is connected through and beyond death. “Those can be very superstitious and get quite dark and macabre,” Sánchez said. “Ours is a celebration, and there is nothing macabre about it.” It also provides an alternative to having an altar at home, without being able to share it with others. “Those can be quite isolating,” Sánchez said. “And also, the children don’t learn the theology behind it.” Children at St. Agnes of Bohemia School in Little Village have been celebrating Día de los Muertos for years, said assistant principal Claire Zaffaroni. The school hosts an evening celebration where everyone is invited to bring photos of their loved ones for the altar. In addition to prayer, the observance features music and dancing, food and piñatas for the children. “They really like the opportunity to share it with their families,” Zaffaroni said. St. Agnes School in Chicago Heights had its first ever Day of the Dead celebration Nov. 1, principal Matthew Lungaro said. The school has transitioned over the past several years to having a majority Latino enrollment. About 70 percent of the students are Latino now, Lungaro said, and a group of parents suggested the evening event. “They really put it all together, and it was amazing,” Lungaro said. Parents decorated the gym at St. Kieran Parish, also in Chicago Heights, supplied food — one mother made 400 tamales — and made an ofrenda. They also got Mexican folkloric dancers and a DJ for entertainment. More than 350 people of all ethncitities came, and the crowd included members of all three parishes in Chicago Heights. “Afterwards, the parents were telling me we have to do this again,” Lungaro said. “I’m all for it, and I know our pastor would be too.” Polish Catholics also have a strong tradition of coming together to remember their deceased family members around All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. “All Saints’ Day in Poland is a day when families are together,” said Father Marek Smolka, coordinator for the archdiocese’s Polish Ministry Council. “People from all over the country travel to their home cities to visit the graves of their deceased relatives. The main tradition of All Saints’ Day in Poland is to visit the cemeteries where your beloved ones are resting.” That tradition has been maintained by Polish families in the United States, even when it’s cold and damp, Smolka said. “All Saints’ Day is taken very seriously in Poland — no matter the weather, you will see many people go to the cemeteries even a few days in advance to clean the graves before the day itself,” he said. “A messy or neglected grave is considered to be a shame for the family of the deceased; therefore, people make an effort to make the graves look well cared-for, with flowers and candles. People light candles on graves of their loved ones and pray for their souls. Some people believe that these candles help the departed souls find their way through the darkness.” Many people try to go to confession before All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, he said, and many cemeteries host Masses and processions.