What happens to you after you die?
Science has no answer to this question. Our western culture, based so tenaciously on empirical evidence, the pursuit of eternal youth, and, more recently, a fear of being politically incorrect, remains uncomfortable with the topic of death, much less what goes on after.
Here in the States, our dead are relegated safely to a photo on the mantel, a headstone in the cemetery, a moment of hushed reverence and a stately gift of flowers. There is no proof that life goes on, no hard evidence. No one wishes to impose their beliefs on anyone else. No agnostic wants to say, "Well, their existence is done" to a Hindu. No Hindu wants to say, "Aw, they'll be back again any time now," to a Christian. The Christian feels awkward saying, "Your loved one is in heaven with God," to the agnostic. So as a culture, we tend to not say anything at all. "The dead live on -- in our memories," we mimic the smarmy mantra of a dozen after-school TV specials. Then we quickly shut up so as not to remind the survivors of their loss.
Speaking of the dead seems to be as much a taboo as touching a dead body -- another thing that our sanitized culture prevents us from doing. We no longer prepare our own loved ones for burial. The body is shipped off to strangers, professionals. Death is not to be touched, not to be spoken of. It is a black, contagious mystery. It is the dirty secret hidden in the closet of the suburban palace that represents the American Dream. We bribe it with plastic surgery, organ transplants, prescription pharmaceuticals, and exercise regimens. Still it comes for us in its own good time, terrifying in its refusal to be controlled or defined.
Once upon a time, however, there was another, older American Dream. Another, older American people known also for their sophisticated engineering, their science, their empire building, their violent tendencies, their passion for a good ball game. The Aztecs, like so many other American civilizations, gave way under the force of imported European weapons and diseases, but their influences have remained, impervious to germ and steel. Ghosts cannot be silenced by fleshly conquerors, and these ghosts in particular whisper to us a few things about death.
There is a holiday that has filtered up from the lands the Aztecs once ruled, a three day celebration known collectively as Dia de los Muertos, or "Day of the Dead". It's a curious mingling of traditions, for just as there were Christian missionaries who looked to conquer and eradicate old beliefs, there were others who looked to find the common truths, the different ways which cultures find to describe the same phenomenon.
Popular beliefs put forward on the internet suggest that the Aztecs set aside the ninth month of their year to celebrate death, and that under the auspices of the goddess Mictecacihuatl, they brought out skulls and welcomed the return of dead ones. Though I have yet to come across an authoritative source with anthropological or archaeological evidence to support that statement, certainly translations of pre-Columbian manuals like the Codex Vindobonensis, the Codex Borgia and the Popol Vuh, plus records of traditions like the Leyenda de los Soles demonstrate that the Aztecs had a unique relationship with death.
Death comes from life, and life in turn must come from death. This was a pivotal belief for the Aztecs. The Florentine Codex contains the original Nahuatl texts collected by Fray Bernardino de Sahagun. According to the translation, in the days before there was a sun, the gods held a council and spoke among themselves: "'Come hither, O gods! Who will take it upon himself to be the sun, to bring the dawn?"' Two gods volunteered. A fire was prepared and Tecuciztecatl was urged to cast himself into it. "Upon this, he went forward to cast himself into the flames. And when the heat came to reach him, it was insufferable, intolerable and unbearable. ... When the heat reached him, he could only turn and leap back. He could not bear it." Four times, Tecuciztecatl tried to throw himself on the fire, and four times he failed. Then Nanauatzin tried. "All at once, [Nanauatzin] quickly threw and cast himself into the fire; once and for all he went. Thereupon he burned; his body crackled and sizzled. And when Tecuciztecatl saw that already he burned, then, afterwards, he cast himself upon the fire. Thereupon he also burned."
As the tale continues, Tecuciztecatl and Nanauatzin become luminous, taking their place in the sky to act as the sun and the moon. They are frozen stationary in the sky, however, and the remaining gods are faced with the problem of how to get them to move. The solution they arrive at: "'Let this be, that through us the sun may be revived. Let all of us die.'"
In this manner, the Aztec gods accomplished most of their acts of creation, either through their own sacrifice or through the letting of their blood. This, in turn, founded the pervasive Mesoamerican mindset that blood sacrifices were an essential part of everyday life. In fact, they were of the opinion that human blood made the world go 'round, and that not maintaining a steady supply of it would cause the world to stop. Markman and Markman describe it in the following manner: "The life force never dies; it moves in a cycle from ancestors to descendants, joining them in a spiritual pattern essentially the same as the one traced by the sun as it moves from its zenith to the underworld below and rises again as well as the one manifested in the "dead" seed's sprouting new life. Sacrificial death was thus seen as a necessary part of that cyclical movement, the human work necessary to maintain that motion; in that sense, human blood fueled the cosmic motion, and, by providing that blood through willing sacrifice, humanity played its part in maintaining the cyclical life of the cosmos." (182)
Far from being a bad thing, a sacrificial death was an honorable way to go. The human sacrifice (willing or otherwise) served as a symbolic representation of the gods. In Sahagun's Codex Matritensis, a translated passage reads:
"For this reason the ancient ones said,
he who has died, he becomes a god.
They said: "He became a god here,"
which means that he died."
According to Markman and Markman, "the most coveted fate was bestowed upon warriors who died in battle or were sacrificed." (94) After four years of traveling with the sun during the morning, these honored individuals might look forward to returning to the earth as hummingbirds or butterflies, to spend the rest of their existence flying back and forth between heaven and earth as they pleased.
Obviously, then, Mesoamericans had more than a passing acquaintance with death. It was not the thing that went bump in the night, but the next door neighbor whom one saw on a daily basis. And far from a sudden, frightening end, it was seen as the logical precursor to life, just as winter is the logical precursor to spring. They did not hide from it as we do, but wielded it as a tool.
Moving forward through time, with the coming of Christianity and Europeans, a blending of cultures, traditions and religions began, sometimes encouraged, often discouraged. All Saint's Day is a Catholic festival dating back to the fourth century A.D. that celebrates the achievements of our Christian version of bodhisattvas, people of remarkable holiness and virtue, souls whom the Church is certain, by way of several miraculous demonstrations, have gone to heaven. The Irish started the practice of observing this holiday on the first of November. Since somewhere around 1030 A.D., All Soul's Day has been held on November 2, a day to commemorate all the Faithful Departed; in other words, those who have died in the hopes of going to heaven, but who have presented no miraculous evidence of having attained that lofty goal.
Just as the date of All Saint's Day was combined by the Irish with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, their god of death, converts to Catholicism in the Middle Americas also combined their new Catholic traditions with much older ones. The resulting traditions don't resemble orthodox practices from either parent religion, but present an expression of truths as people experience them on a day to day basis and reflect the needs and evolving cultural influences of a people. Dia de los Muertos combines the optimistic Catholic view of salvation in an afterlife with the Mesoamerican familiarity with death. Along the way, the holiday has begun to adopt influences from Santeria, a hybridization of Catholicism and African magic, similar to Vodoun, brought to the Americas by West African slaves. As cultures collide, the familiar North American Halloween practices have also begun to be absorbed.
How Dia de los Muertos is practiced depends on the cultural influences of the area, but there are recognizable key traditions. Skulls are made from sweet bread or candy. They are decorated like dead loved ones or bear their names. Art depicting skeletons engaged in various activities normally reserved for the living is another mainstay of the holiday. Life in death, death in life is the Mesoamerican theme. Opportunities to remember the beloved dead is the Christian influence. The art is often humorous, an opportunity to mock death. The skulls give those left behind in the realm of the living an opportunity to remember the dead, to share stories about them.
Small altars are often made, containing ofrendas, items that were dear to a dead loved one, things of significance, gifts to the departed. It is traditional on these days to make the favorite meals of the dead, and many families pack the meals to be eaten in the cemetery next to the graves of dead family.
More importantly, still, however are the traditions that are not so easily seen. Mesoamerican tradition has a very permeable barrier between the world of the spirits and the living. Humans had important duties to carry out in the spiritual realm; the shedding of blood acted directly upon both worlds, an act that carried over into the spiritual world to set in motion things which then produced results in the physical world. Similarly, there are those who observe Dia de los Muertos who believe that the barriers between the world of the living and the world of the dead are not so rigid during this holiday, and that the dead return to join their living loved ones. The meals and gifts are not necessarily symbolic, or done in memory of; for many, they are seen as being given directly to spirits who are present and who can enjoy the sentiment, even if they themselves can no longer physically partake.
Mesoamericans don't necessarily have a patent on this idea; in old Britain, they also believed that souls in Purgatory -- a place of waiting and cleansing for those not worthy of Paradise -- were loosed to roam the earth, starting with the eve of All Saint's Day, on through All Soul's Day. A subtle, sinister difference perhaps speaking of one culture's sense of familiarity with death versus another culture's antipathy to it -- the emphasis of Dia de los Muertos tends to be the beloved dead returning to visit friends and family, whereas the old English tradition hints at restless dead returning.
So what happens when you die? To those whose religious beliefs add an element of spiritual reality to Dia de los Muertos, the dead continue to exist in the spirit world, coming back to visit at least once a year. But even for those who don't believe, Dia de los Muertos provides an appealing opportunity to look safely at one of the most frightening aspects of our existence: death and loss. Coat it with bright colors, good food, candy, music, laughter, then dare to confront it. Whether you believe your loved ones are returning to visit or that they only live on in your memories, Dia de los Muertos provides an excellent opportunity to refresh and share those memories, make small symbolic gestures, pass down lore, and contemplate that which we try not to dwell on the rest of the year.
As the sun sets on October 31st this year, take the time to stop and listen; is the veil between worlds truly thinner? Or is it just the heightening of our awareness that there are things beyond our perception -- even if those things are simply a physical world that will continue to exist long after our senses fail to perceive it and we have turned to dust? And then, having faced Death, find some festivities to indulge in, for with a heightened awareness of Death it is only logical that we enjoy a heightened awareness of Life.
The previous bearers of the American Dream would be quick to point out that the two are inextricably entwined.
- Catholic Encyclopedia, ed. Peter Stravinskas. Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1998.
- Harper's Encyclopedia of Mystical & Paranormal Experience, Rosemary Ellen Guiley. New Jersey: Castle Books, 1991.
- The Flayed God. Roberta H. Markman and Peter T. Markman. San Francisco: HarperSanFransisco, 1992.