Around the world different customs abound about how we mourn for and celebrate our dead.
Here in the UK we are often quite conservative with our emotions and seem to find it hard to let go, this can result in many of our ceremonies being quite somber affairs.
Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead
The Mexicans on the other hand seem to have a very different way of expressing themselves which has resulted in perhaps one of the most colourful and vibrant of these celebrations, the Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. This celebration although originally from Mexico is now celebrated across much of Latin America.
Starting on 1st November this two day celebration begins in style as families come together to honour, love and respect their relatives who have passed on to the other side. It is not just a celebration of death but of life. The items and symbolism used in these celebrations are brightly coloured consisting of flowers, incense, candles, music, dancing and photos, not to mention face painting and the carnival feel to the whole celebration. A far cry from our funeral rituals of wearing black and weeping quietly into a tissue. The rituals used within the Day of the Dead celebrations are abundant with symbolism and it is important to understand their meaning so as to make sense of the concept as a whole.
Ancient Ritual Beginnings
The Aztec, Toltec and other Nahua people believed that mourning the dead was disrespectful as they believed death was a natural phase in life. They believed that the dead still lived on within the memory of those left behind and on the Day of the Dead the deceased would temporarily return to Earth. Although the celebration has its origins in these ancient cultures, today’s celebrations are more a mash up of the ancient and relatively recent pre-Hispanic religious rites and Christian feasts introduced by missionaries.
So, let’s just look at one or two of these rituals and their meanings and see if we can’t learn a thing or two about how to celebrate our own loved ones when they pass on to the other side.
Ofrendas – Altars of Remembrance
The creation of altars to mark the Day of the Dead has been an important part of the festival for thousands of years. Each family creates an altar, often in their home, not to worship at but to welcome back the spirits to the land of the living. When families build their altars, their offerings often include representations of the four elements: Earth, Fire, Water and Air.
Food, drink and flowers, representing Earth and Water adorn the altar along with incense and candles, which represent Air and Fire. Photos of the deceased will also be present and if the deceased is a child, a small toy may be laid to welcome the child’s spirit back. These altars are set up in the family home and much is made of making an elaborate and inviting place for the spirits to come back to.
Food for the Dead – Food to Die for!
The belief is, that the spirits will have worked up a huge hunger from their travels from the afterlife and will therefore need sustenance when they arrive back on Earth. Some families will prepare and lay out the favourite meal of their dead loved ones whilst others will prepare the Pan de Muerto or ‘Bread of the Dead’.
This sweet dough bread, flavoured with anise seeds and dusted with sugar, is decorated with dough shapes to represent the skull and cross bones. Sometimes the bread may also be decorated with tiny dough teardrops to symbolise the sorrow of someone’s passing.
Sugar skulls, which are now a huge part of the celebration, are not strictly traditional but were an adaptation by 17th century Italian missionaries who brought their expertise in sugar art. Today, modern techniques have allowed this to develop further with special moulds now made for the purpose which vary in complexity, resulting in highly colourful and elaborate decorations in the shape of skulls and skeletons! The sugar skulls represent the departed with their names often written on the forehead of the skull and placed on the Ofrendas. At the end of the celebration the sugar skulls are then eaten!
No Mexican feast would be complete without tequila and indeed many families will leave tequila on the altar for the spirits to enjoy whilst others may offer some pulque. This is a fermented drink made from agave sap or if this doesn’t float your boat how about some atole. This is a thin warm porridge made with cornflour with added cinnamon, vanilla and sugar for flavour. Still not tempted then how about offering something a little less exotic, a nice drop of hot chocolate. Really anything goes as long as it appeals to the deceased.
Flowers for the Dead: Mexican Marigolds
Now we could learn a thing or two from the symbolisim of the flowers used in the Day of the Dead celebrations. Many flowers laid at funerals in the UK are either something that the deceased liked or something that the mourner likes! How often do we think about the symbolic nature of the flowers we are choosing when buying a wreath for a coffin or memorial?
Marigolds, those brilliant orange flowers growing in your garden in the summer have an enormous and significant place in the Day of the Dead celebration. These bright flowers are believed to be sacred to the Aztec Goddess Mictecacihuatl – also known as the Lady of the Dead. Ancient civilisations believed the smell of the marigold’s blossom could wake souls and bring them back to Earth.
So, during the Day of the Dead, many people festoon their altars with the petals and whole flowers of marigolds in order to lure and lead the spirits home.
The humble marigold has many other uses too, ranging from being a food added to salads, or an ingredient added to perfumes, or even added to chicken feed to make the egg yolks more yellow! The plant itself grows wild in a huge belt across the centre of Mexico and is believed to be one of the most popular flowers in the world!
Papel Picado – Perforated Paper Decorations
What celebration would be complete without decorations? The Day of the Dead is no different. Papel Picado is the name given to the tissue paper flags carved out using chisels with different designs for different celebrations. The Day of the Dead is one such celebration where the streets and altars are adorned with Papel Picado adding that carnival feel to the whole event.
Traditionally the Aztecs used mulberry and fig tree bark to create a rough paper called amatl. Onto this the Aztecs would put melted rubber and then paint on top of this to decorate shrines, sculptures and sacrificial burial places. By the mid-19th century tissue paper had made its way to Mexico and now this Mexican folk art is a traditional method of cutting layers of tissue paper into intricate designs using a small mallet and chisels.
As many as 40 or 50 different coloured sheets of paper are layered together and then, using a template, painstakingly cut to be used as banners across alleyways and streets or to adorn houses and altars throughout the festival – in much the same way we might use bunting in the UK!
Make no bones about it – it’s all about Skulls and Skeletons!
The image of the skull has become synonymous with the Day of the Dead! The history of using skulls in imagery goes back to pre-Columbian civilisations, with the Aztec’s worship of our Lady of the Dead Mictecacihuatl, who was often represented herself as a skeleton adorned with flowers and skulls.
The human skull is just one of the many images at sacrificial offering sites still found today, as decorations on walls, in Yacatan and Mexico City.
The skeleton image was embraced by satirists and artists alike. One artist of particular note was José Guadalupe Posada whose drawings would make fun of everyday situations, particularly those of the upper classes. It is from one of these drawings that the character of La Catrina, a parody of 19th century upper class ladies, evolved to become the embodiment of death herself. Today the ‘calavera’ style Mexican woman can be seen in many decorations either made from papier mache figures or wooden carvings and pottery. People will even dress and paint their faces to represent La Catrina during the Day of the Dead celebrations.
As the celebrations come to an end on the second day, the festivities are moved to the cemeteries where families enjoy playing games and listening to local music whilst further celebrating the life of their loved ones passed. The carnival feel will go on into the evening with people enjoying dancing and reminiscing about members of their families no longer with them.
Despite the many efforts of the Spanish church to subdue the Day of the Dead celebrations over many many years, the festival has gone from strength to strength adding weight to the idea that it offers us a worthwhile connection to our deceased. Perhaps this is something we Brits could learn and possibly embrace for our own lives and deaths and fundamentally change the way we mourn our loved one’s – I for one say – let’s get this party started!
If you have found this blog interesting or have other ways that you or your family use to celebrate the life of your deceased, please let me know by getting in touch – I would love to hear from you…