Dia de los Muertos

Mexico's Day of the Dead

Her face is unforgettable and she goes by many names: La Catrina, la Flaca, la Huesuda, la Pelona–Fancy Lady, Skinny, Bony, Baldy. A fixture in Mexican society, she’s not some trendy fashion model, but La Muerte–Death.

Renowned writer Octavio Paz observes that, undaunted by death, the Mexican has no qualms about getting up close and personal with death, noting that he “…chases after it, mocks it, courts it, hugs it, sleeps with it; it is his favorite plaything and his most lasting love.”

Every year, on November 1st (All Saints Day) and 2nd (All Souls Day), something unique takes place in many areas of Mexico: the festivities of The Day of the Dead. While it is strange for most foreigners to accept the fact that “death” and “festivities” can go hand-in-hand, for most Mexicans, the two are intricately entwined. This all stems from the ancient belief that the souls of the dead return each year to visit with their living relatives – to eat, drink and be merry. Just like they did when they were living.

The eve of November 1 is dedicated to infants and children. Traditional offerings include sweet tamales, chocolate, “Pan de Muertos” (a rich coffee cake decorated with figures made to look like bones) and toys. November 2nd is devoted to departed adults. Offerings of all the things enjoyed in life are made for them to enjoy; traditional dishes such as mole and tamales, broths, tequila, and cigarettes. Other symbols include skull-shaped candies and sweets, marizpan and papier maché skeletons and skulls.

At home, members of the family create an altar in honor of their deceased relatives and decorate it with photographs, flowers, candles and all their favorite foods and drinks. A designated area of the home is cleared of its normal furnishings. The arrangement often consists of a table and several overturned wooden crates placed in tiers and covered with clean linens. The offerings are then laid out in an artistic and fairly symmetrical fashion. The spirits of the dead are expected to pay a holiday visit home and should be provided with an enticing repast and adequate sustenance for the journey. Frequently a washbasin and clean hand towel are provided so that visiting souls can freshen up before the feast.

Mexicans still view death as a transition of life, a normal stage in the circle of life on earth, a natural progression, not an ending. Author Victor Landa quoted an old legend: “In our tradition, people die three deaths. The first death is when our bodies cease to function, when our hearts no longer beat of their own accord, when our gaze no longer has depth or weight. The second death comes when our body is lowered into the ground, returned to mother earth, out of sight. The third death, the most definitive death, is when there is no one left alive to remember us”.

This holiday is a perfect example of the complex heritage of the Mexican people. The beliefs of which are based on the complicated blended cultures of their ancestors: the Aztecs, the Maya and the Spanish Invaders, layered with Catholicism.

The celebration of the Day of the Dead is a tribute to those we loved in life. It is a magical ritual that allows the living and the dead to come together through remembrance; for it is the memory of our loved ones that, even in death, keeps them alive in our hearts. The Day of the Dead is a time when Mexican Families remember their dead loved ones and celebrate the continuity of life.

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