For Mexicans, death is as natural as life itself. It’s seen as an inevitable part of the natural cycle. Birth leads into life, and life leads to death. The worlds of the living and the dead are deeply intertwined, two parts of a whole.
Pre-Hispanic cultures believed that when someone died they went to Mictlán (Place of Death) where they more or less continued their existence. For example, if someone was a baker in life, then they were also a baker in death. This is why you see skeletons (calaveras) decorated to represent different personalities from all walks of life. They aren’t meant to be scary. Instead, they represent the playfulness of the Dead, as they mimic the Living.
During, Dia de los Muertos the veil between the two worlds is thought to be lifted temporarily, so that the deceased may return to their earthly homes to visit and rejoice with their loved ones. It is believed that although these relatives can’t see them, they can feel their presence. In many ways it is considered a triumph over death and therefore becomes a celebration of life. There is no place for sorrow or weeping for this could be interpreted as a discourteous to the dead relatives who are visiting gladly.
Mexicans have a sort of dark humor about death. They joke about death and poke fun at it while at the same time paying respect to the fragility of life. This duality is often represented through comical skeleton figures or by combining skulls with ornate designs, flowers and bright colors.
Although I don’t personally believe there is a literal “visitation”, I do very much like the idea of a joyful and communal remembrance and celebration of our loved ones… both living and dead. At the core of this celebration is the human hope to never be forgotten. In Mexico, the legend goes, people die three deaths. The first death is the failure of the body. The second is the burial of the body. The third and last is the most definitive. This occurs when no one is left to remember us.
There is a lot more to this deeply rooted tradition, but for the sake of brevity I won’t go into all of the details (nor do I pretend to be an expert), but I’ll try to touch on the key points.
- Dia de los Muertos is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd.
- The first night is dedicated to welcoming the souls of children that have passed away, known as Día de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents) or Día de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels).
- The second day is when the adult souls arrive.
- Common Day of the Dead traditions include creating altars to honor the dead, laying out offerings, sharing stories of the deceased, as well as cleaning and decorating gravesites.
- The altars are not meant to be religious or about worshiping relatives. It’s essentially like setting a fancy dinner table for important guests.
- Photos of loved ones that you want to remember and honor are placed on the altar along with offerings.
- The offerings/oferendas include food and drink, because it is believed the dead enjoy the tastes and smells.
I was particularly interested in celebrating Dia de los Muertos this year because I lost my grandmother this last July and after returning from a trip to Mexico in September, I thought this would be a great way to honor her spirit in a joyful way.
We built and decorated a small altar/ofrenda in our home and invited close friends and family to join us and contribute small photos of loved ones as well as small offerings.
All in all, it was a fantastic experience that everybody enjoyed. I’d highly recommend giving it a try.