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February 19, 2024

Dia de los Muertos

By Alexandra Queen

Holidays are traditionally times of closeness, of celebration of family and friends. Ideally, they are pleasant get-togethers, but even if time spent with relatives is akin to having ice picks driven under one's fingernails, holidays are the times we tend most to make the effort to renew those bonds that either support or chafe. Dia de los Muertos ("Day of the Dead") is not merely a "hispanic Halloween". It is a major holiday, and above all others, this one focuses on those bonds between family and friends - in particular, those dear to us who have died.

The manner in which these festivals of the dead are celebrated varies from place to place and has changed over time. Originally, the festival was an entire month of celebration held around August by the Aztec and other Meso-American peoples. Under the auspices of Mictecacihuatl, the "Lady of the Dead", skulls of the dead were used to celebrate. With the coming of Christianity, the festival was shifted to coincide with All Saints' Day (Nov 1st) and All Souls' Day (Nov 2nd). In some places now, families visit the graves of the dearly departed, picnicking with foods the loved ones used to enjoy. In places like Tepoztlan, Morelos, the people say a "crack between worlds" opens up, allowing the dead to come visit, and meals are held in homes. In other places with more contact with North American practices, the festival is incorporating "Halloween" aspects, and children are dressing up and collecting sweets for the dead. Though the customs vary, the main elements remain the same. Dia de los Muertos is a time to contemplate mortality, to look at it, speak of it, and by doing so, remove some of the fear and pain.

In the United States, there is a certain awkwardness associated with death. Do we dare speak of a dead loved one, or will it stir up the pain of loss? Culturally, we tend to sweep our dead out of sight, consider them lost to us. In Mexico, however, that awkwardness and pain of loss is mitigated with the Day of the Dead. A prevalent theme of the holiday that has lasted through the ages is that death is not an ending. Some mesoamerican cultures thought of life as a dream, with reality being what comes after, a belief echoed in Christianity's dogma. For us, the living, the dead are not "gone" or "lost", they are merely in another state of existence. Dia de los Muertos, then, is a time to celebrate the trust that this is true, that the dead still exist. For those that feel this way, the dead are not truly lost because they come over for dinner at least once a year. Even for those who do not believe in an afterlife, the Day of the Dead is an opportunity to make sure that loved ones live on in memory and are not forgotten.

Different traditions recall the dead to us. Hard candied "alfenique" skulls are made to represent the dead. In some cases, even the living have skulls made for them. Often names are put onto these "calaveras" ("skulls"), or they are decorated in some way to recall specific individuals. Altars with "ofrendas" or offerings are set up. They often contain photographs of the dead, and sometimes of saints who were particularly important to the family or deceased. Shots of a favorite liquor and servings of a favorite food are often included as well. In particular, "pan de los muertos" (bread of the dead), is a tradition. The bread is oval shaped to represent the soul. Small breads are often made to represent "angelitos", children who have died young or before birth.

It is a time, too, to contemplate our own mortality. Some can draw comfort from the "closeness" of the deceased, a meeting of the worlds of the living and dead, a point of familiarity to look forward to when their own journey into the afterlife begins. Whatever else we know and don't know about what it's like to be dead, for some people there is a confidence that at least once a year they will rejoin their living loved ones for a festival, and surely that makes the concept of death less terrifying. Even for skeptics and agnostics, the idea that loved ones will take a time to joyfully celebrate one's memory is comforting.

To mock something removes some of its power to frighten, and Dia de los Muertos being a joyful celebration, death is cheerfully poked fun at as well. Drawings and dolls are made of skeletons engaged in a variety of whimsical activities better suited for the living - dancing, chewing bubble gum, playing music.

Our family is a mix of different cultures, and this November we will have our own celebration of death that reflects them. For Halloween, we will be building a tableau outside with ofrendas for our dearly departed. My grandfather loved the woods around his home and science fiction. A few leaves, a classic Heinlein and a beer will represent him in the tableau, as well as chalk drawings in the driveway of skeletons in the navy and in outer space. A good friend who died in a car accident recently will have drawings of cats, a pack of cigarettes and a kd lang cd in the tableau. Skeletons for her will be drawings of reformed kids leading decent lives. Other loved ones and symbols may even get more obscure. Maybe we'll explain them to trick-or-treaters who come to our tableau in the driveway, but probably we won't. What we will do is discuss them amongst ourselves, remembering what was important to our loved ones, what about them was most important to us, rendering them into symbols that we will share with each other and pass along to my daughter as she helps us. My daughter never got a chance to meet my grandfathers, but she'll know them nonetheless. She'll become familiar with them through the symbols we make and the stories we share as we build the tableaux. She'll meet them every November when we all share a meal and celebrate Dia de los Muertos together again.

  • Natural History, Nov 1998 v107 n9 p66(4) The bread of the dead. (El Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead) Robb Walsh.
  • The Economist (US), Nov 6, 1999 v353 i8144 p36 Mexico, haunted by new ghosts.
  • Commonweal, Oct 20, 1995 v122 n18 p13(4) The crack between the worlds: the Mexican way of death. Ann Roy.
  • The Arizona Republic. Indigenous people wouldn't let 'Day of the Dead' die Carlos Miller http://www.azcentral.com/ent/dead/history/
Article © Alexandra Queen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2002-11-04
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