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On shelves, death gets its day

At import stores and gift shops in Texas, shelves have always been full of folk art inspired by el Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

These days, though, the creepy, colorful artwork isn't relegated to just the import shops; the skulls and skeletons of the Day of the Dead can be found all over. Lucky Brand Jeans sells a Dia de los Muertos-inspired top for women, a long-sleeved shirt with skeleton graphics on the back and the sleeves. D.L. & Co., the luxury-goods company that focuses on candles and gifts, now has a "Memento Mori" line full of skull-shaped silver paperweights, skull-decorated notecards and a black, skull-shaped candle. And you know something's big when it's emblazoned on a mass-market disposable - paper plates from Target have a colorful, Day-of-the-Dead-inspired design. In fashion and home decor, this is the Day of the Dead's moment in the sun.

Of course, the Day of the Dead started out as a sacred holiday in Mexico and other countries in Central and South America. It's celebrated Nov. 1 and 2, which coincides with All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day in the Catholic Church and other churches. With altars and processions and visits to cemeteries, the people of Mexico honor the dead, celebrating the lives - and the eternal life - of their loved ones.

If the Day of the Dead isn't a part of your heritage, decorating with bright skeletons and papier-mache masks may seem trendy. But is using folk art as home decor cheapening the sacred holiday or robbing it of its spiritual significance?

Sacred symbols have gotten mixed up in commerce before. People collect crosses and place Buddha figures in our homes, and both Christianity and Buddhism seem to have survived. The Virgin of Guadalupe has become a trendy image on clothing and jewelry.

"You can't really have a primal celebration in the modern world without mixing it up with capitalism," says Suzanne Morrison, an associate professor of religion at Ohio Northern University. Furthermore, she says, this isn't the only sacred celebration that has been co-opted by capitalism. Look at Christmas.

Morrison wrote her dissertation on the ways the Day of the Dead is celebrated in San Francisco. She has seen the celebration get bigger and more multicultural there and in other cities. But as the celebration is getting bigger in parts of America, Morrison says, it's fading away in parts of Mexico. Especially in bigger cities such as Oaxaca, the Day of the Dead is a show put on primarily for the tourists.

"In so many communities, the celebration had lapsed until just a few decades ago," she says.

For many, then, the day has become less sacred.

"It has slowly evolved into a cultural holiday," says Helen Sides, executive director of Fort Worth's Centro Cultural de las Americas. "Certainly, many people continue to celebrate it as a religious day if they are Catholic. But non-Catholics will continue to celebrate it as a cultural day of remembrance of loved ones."