The Day of the Dead
Death and Dying
Los Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday spanning two days and three nights. During this holiday, families gather to welcome the souls of the people that have died. They see these days as crossroads between the living and the dead. The Day of the Dead originates from ancient Aztec culture and although Christianity has influenced this celebration over the years, the Mexican people, like the Aztecs, still exhibit no fear of death and it is talked about openly and in everyday life. Ofrendas are a traditional element in celebrating the Day of the Dead; even their symbol of death, the calavera, helps to show that there is no denial of death in this culture. This is witnessed especially throughout the festivities.
The people of Ancient Aztec believed that death is part of life, even a continuation of life. The Aztec people embraced nature and understood their lives to be like those of other creatures in the world. They easily accepted that we all die and because of this, they had no fears or worries about what was to come.
However, the Spanish crusaders came along and in their attempt to turn the Mexican people Catholic, affected the celebrations. Catholicism actively denies death while the Mexican traditions do not. Because of the two cultures being brought so near each other, it was inevitable that Mexican traditions would change even if only very slightly. The Mexican traditions did not change very much because the Spanish Christians have very similar celebrations on the same days, but for the most part, they stayed the same.
In both cultures, they create Ofrendas or offerings to the dead. These Ofrendas are meant to bring the dead into the friends’ and families’ everyday lives. They are to remind people how much the dead were loved in life and how they are still loved and remembered. Often, on the Ofrendas, families will put the favorite things of the person that is dead. There will be his favorite food and toys so that his picnic with his living family on the day of the dead will be more enjoyable. Also on the Ofrendas, flowers like marigolds are placed. It is believed that these brightly colored flowers help the dead to see after they come out of the darkness.
Another way that families help their deceased relatives and friends to see is by lighting candles for each individual that has died. When they light these special candles, they remember each person individually and say their name out loud. By doing this, they believe that the dead will find their way easier. Many people even light candles for no one in particular so that the souls of people without family or friends will not get lost in their travels.
Once the souls of the dead reach their destination, families sit around the graves of the deceased and party with them. They sit in the graveyard, around the graves of their loved ones and eat and share family stories that both the living and the dead enjoy. Unlike Christians, the Mexican people do not fear being in a graveyard. Christian culture makes people feel like graveyards are unsafe places where the souls of the dead lurk. Many people really fear going into graveyards in the dark because they fear that the dead will do something to them.
The Mexican people do not fear graveyards at all. They even spend the night at the gravesites of the deceased after they celebrate and picnic there. Before the deceased even return, families go to the graves of their loved ones and clean up the area. They plant new flowers and decorate the grave in honor of the dead. This is kind of like Christian traditions of people going to the graves of the dead and putting bouquets of flowers in memory of that person. However, in today’s society, it isn’t even necessary for people to do this themselves. Because of the denial today, people like the graveyard caretakers do this work for the living. It’s almost as if going to a grave to pay respects to the dead is inconvenient, and since we can pay people to do just about anything for us, we do. Jobs like grounds keepers make today’s society deny death by doing the work that should be done by the family to show they love and remember the dead.
Another way that they show that they do not deny or fear death is through the traditional foods that are made on these days. Pan de Muerta, or bread of the dead is made in the shapes of bodies or skeletons. This sweet bread is made and first enjoyed by the dead, although they can not really eat it, and what is then left of the bread is eaten by the living family. Also, candy skulls are made and the names of both living people and deceased people are put on them. They are put on graves and Ofrendas and “eaten” by children living and dead.
Skeletons are used as a way of showing death in life. Skeleton figures, or Calaveras, are depicted doing everyday activities. These show that the Mexicans know that all people die. No person in any occupation can avoid death and the calaveras show this. They are even comical depictions of skeletons doing various activities and they are in everyday life situations.
The day of the dead is a day when Mexican people are even more open than usual to talk about and experience death and dying. Although they are very open about death, this day allows for the passage of the souls of the dead into the world of the living to eat, drink, and party with their surviving family. By celebrating this day, Mexicans show that they do not fear death.
DeSpelder, Lynne A., and Albert L. Strickland. The Last Dance: Encountering Death and Dying. 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005. Gnojewski, Carol . Day of the Dead: A Latino Celebration of Family and Life. Enslow Publishers, Inc, 2005. Lasky, Kathryn. Days of the Dead. New York: Hyperion Books for Children, 1994. Menard, Valerie. The Latino Holiday Book. New York: Marlowe and Company, 2000. Toor, Frances. Treasury of Mexican Folkways. New York: Crown Publishers, 1947.