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Jennifer Yonkoski and her daughter Esme, 3, of Dallas look at pictures that are part of the Day of the Dead exhibit at the Everhart Museum in Scranton.

NIKO J. KALLIANIOTIS/FOR THE TIMES LEADER

Left: Artist Deborah Lacativa combined cotton canvas, appliqué, acrylic paint and beads to create ‘Nellie’s Garden – She Sees, She Knows.’ The piece is included in the Day of the Dead exhibit at the Everhart Museum in Scranton.

Students from the Howard Gardner School for Discovery took some time off from the classroom to see the Day of the Dead exhibit at Everhart Museum in Scranton.

NIKO J. KALLIANIOTIS/FOR THE TIMES LEADER

Four-year-old Zoe and 3-year-old Esme gazed at the ofrenda display, carefully obeying their mother’s admonition not to touch the candles or blossoms scattered around the suggestion of a grave.

“Why did the flowers fall down?” one of the little girls asked.

“Somebody put them there,” Jennifer Yonkoski of Dallas explained. “This is how you can celebrate all the people you love.”

Celebration, not sorrow, is the central message of “Day of the Dead: Art & Culture in the Americas,” an exhibit at the Everhart Museum in Scranton will host through Dec. 31.

“Of course, there’s mourning and grief when someone dies,” curator Nezka Pfeifer said on a recent Friday afternoon. “But the idea is it’s obscene to grieve on the Day of the Dead.”

Pfeifer traveled to Mexico City last year to see the elaborate celebrations of El Dia de los Muertos, a time when families are likely to dress up, fill the cemetery with flowers, hold a picnic near their loved ones’ burial plots and make sure to bring along the favorite food and beverages of the deceased.

Customs vary among Latin American regions, Pfeifer said, but the central thoughts are that death is a natural part of the life cycle, departed loved ones are still part of the family and death is not something to fear.

The traditions have roots in indigenous cultures, Pfeifer said. “People believed the dead would nourish the community.”

The idea that the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest at harvest time took hold, and Aztecs honored the goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as “Lady of the Dead,” for an entire month.

As Catholicism was introduced to Central and South America, the festivities blended with All Saints Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls Day on Nov. 2.

While the Everhart will have a community celebration on Nov. 1, there’s plenty to see and do at the museum before and after that day.

In the interactive “Isaiah’s Corner,” children are invited to color pictures of skulls – a not-so-somber symbol of death you’ll find throughout the exhibit.

They also can use bilingual cards to spell out messages to or about relatives who have died. Dia is day. Mariposa is butterfly. Siempre is always. Dulces is candy ...

At an ofrenda, or altar, that has been set up for anyone who wishes to commemorate a loved one, visitors of all ages are invited to leave a memento of the deceased.

“That’s just what we want people to do,” Pfeifer said, noticing that one woman had left a photograph of her deceased brother.

That ofrenda includes bottles of cola, guava juice, mineral water and tequila – so many a favorite beverage is covered. It also has samples of pan de muertos, or bread of the dead, pumpkin seeds and peanuts. “The dead aren’t expected to physically eat the food,” Pfeifer said, “but to absorb its essence.”

A smaller ofrenda has been set up for Isaiah Everhart, namesake of the museum, showing his portrait alongside a toy hummingbird and cardinal in honor of his interest in ornithology.

Life-size catrina dolls, which are skeletons dressed in finery, stand jauntily against one wall, while a kite, 9 feet wide and representative of Guatemalan celebrations of Day of the Dead, decorates another.

One photograph from Peru shows women laughing heartily as they share corn beer at a cemetery; another shows a girl dancing near the headstone of a woman named Anastacia.

“If you see a cemetery, it will be full of colorful flowers,” museum visitor Freda Barber said, noting she has lived for more than 50 years on Mexico’s Baja peninsula, where she has joined in her neighbors’ Day of the Dead celebrations.

“They’ll spend all night at the cemetery,” said Barber, who recently returned to Pennsylvania with her husband, Bruce, to visit hometown relatives in the Greenwood section of Moosic.

Rounding out the exhibit are examples of pre-Columbian artifacts as well as Day of the Dead toys, such as a skull painted on a bolo bat, with “eyeballs” attached to the paddle so they can bounce like balls.

Another eye-catching part of the exhibit is a picture of a skeleton wearing a cheerfully bright plaid shawl. The skeleton represents artist Mary Louise Smith’s ancestors from Martinique and speaks to a transition that eventually touches everyone.

“Death,” Smith wrote in an essay posted next to her work, “is only the passage from the known to the unknown, a great adventure to come for us all.”

IF YOU GO

What: ‘‘Day of the Dead: Art & Culture in the Americas”

When: noon to 4 p.m. Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 31,

Where: Everhart Museum, Nay Aug Park, Scranton

Admission: $5, $3 for students and seniors: $2 for children

More info: 346-7186

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