- Associated Press - Saturday, November 7, 2015

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) - Tens of thousands of people in elaborate costumes are expected in Tucson on Sunday for one of the nation’s largest processions honoring the deceased, one week after other cities held Day of the Dead events with similar themes.

The All Souls Procession is Tucson’s version of the Day of the Dead, drawing about 150,000 people who paint their faces, dress in costumes, carry art and candles and wear towering paper mache puppets as they walk through Tucson streets. A massive steel urn is used to hold people’s prayers, wishes and mementos. Some participants honor dead relatives, and others mourn victims of AIDS and violence.

Despite the event’s similarities to the Day of the Dead, organizers stress that the All Souls Procession is a uniquely Tucson event that was launched 26 years ago as a way for people to publicly grieve their lost ones in an artistic way.

“The procession has its roots very much in creativity,” said volunteer coordinator Melanie Cooley. “It’s really tapped into a deep cultural human need to publicly grieve and celebrate our dead and not just have a funeral and move on.”

The event comes as the Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, has become increasingly popular both in the U.S. and Mexico. The South Valley Marigold Parade in Albuquerque, for example, draws thousands.

The day has also become more commercialized, with Day of the Dead-themed 5K races and beers donning catrinas, the traditional Day of the Dead skeleton. Disney ruffled feathers two years when it tried and failed to trademark “Dia de los Muertos,” although the company said it was just doing so to protect the name of a movie in production.

The holiday has become so fashionable in the U.S. that middle- and upper-middle class Mexicans who didn’t traditionally celebrate it - the holiday is more rooted in working class and rural Mexican towns - are taking to it as well, according to Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“Lately the Mexican hipsters down in Mexico have discovered Day of the Dead, when until recently that’s not something they would be caught dead doing,” Chesnut said.

But Tucson’s All Souls Procession isn’t about just the Mexican holiday - it’s about allowing people of all cultures and backgrounds to remember the dead and do so in creative and artistic fashion.

“The procession is not and has never claimed to be a traditional Dia de los Muertos event. Out of respect we try to keep it separated,” Cooley said.

Many who participate in the procession and related events say it provides healing and spiritual guidance.

Jane Vazquez of Tucson has participated for several years and also volunteers making children’s costumes for the Procession of Little Angels, a smaller event for children that’s held the day before the procession.

“It’s for me personal. When I was very young I lost my brother and we never discussed it. And I always felt it was an empty hole. And this fills it for me,” Vazquez said.

Sharon Fields, who also helps make costumes, said she likes that the event is unique to Tucson.

“I walk in the procession for the things I’ve lost or the things I’ve let go of, things that are no longer part of my life,” Fields said. “It’s a really incredible thing that we do.”

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