Mexico. Celebrating the departed

From ancestor veneration to the modern rituals of Dia de los muertos. The connections between life and death, between the living and the dead.

As night falls, a young woman lights the candles surrounding the altar she created in honour of her grandmother who passed away two years ago. The ofrenda, an offering embodied in an altar of remembrance, is part of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) traditions that welcome home the departed, for food and festivities. Rose petals and cigarettes line the path to the altar, which celebrates her abuelita’s fondness for gardening and smoking. A heart-shaped box holding the matriarch’s ashes sits beside a cup of coffee and a plate of pan dulce (sweet bread). Old family photographs provide a nostalgic black-and -white backdrop for the display. At the centre, a pink and black prayer veil cradles a card bearing the grandmother’s name: Maria del Refugio, (Mary, of Refuge).

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For more than 3,000 years, communities – from ancient Mesoamerica to modern Mexico – have provided refuge to the spirits of loved ones who traverse the world of the dead to commune with the living.
November begins with Dia del los muertos a national holiday in Mexico. Throughout the country, communities diligently prepare for the two-day celebrations (Nov. 1-2) by creating altars and preparing special aromatic foods. Cemeteries bustle with visitors delivering flowers to gravesites and mausoleums. Papier-mâché skulls line store-window displays and paper banners with images of dancing skeletons drape across walkways. At night, city plazas welcome revellers whose marigold-festooned altars display personal trinkets and treats in honour of the departed.

Links to ancestor veneration

The celebration of Dia de los Muertos bears striking resemblance to the tradition of ancestor veneration practiced by ancient Mesoamericans. The Aztecs, Zapotecs, Maya and other indigenous groups did not envision the dead inhabiting a reality apart from the living, but rather viewed the worlds of the dead and the living as deeply intertwined. “Death and life were not separate states of existence for Mesoamerican communities,” says Julia Guernsey, a professor of art history in the Mexico City University. “For them, the living and the dead co-existed, and they believed communication could take place between the realms. During this period, there were no community graveyards in our modern sense of the term. Instead, families typically buried their loved ones directly under the floors of their households.”

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Mesoamerican burial chambers often were not permanently sealed. This form of ancestor veneration showed a great respect for the dead. Family members could enter the tombs and make offerings to their deceased ancestors long after they were laid to rest. The living sought help from their deceased relatives who could act as intermediaries between the realm of the living and of the dead. In fact, vivid images of this practice exist throughout Mesoamerica. For example, a classic maya stela (or carved upright stone slab) from the ancient site of Piedras Negras in Guatemala, depicts the presentation of an offering to a deceased ancestor, who rests below in a chamber, swaddled in cloth as a mummy bundle. “Such images provide rich evidence for long-established patterns of ancestor veneration, which appear to be echoed in the modern rituals of Dia de los Muertos,” Guernsey says. The indigenous traditions continued throughout the pre-Columbian period and beyond the arrival of Europeans when the rituals merged with Catholic practices to create a transcultural blend of celebrations, scheduled to coincide with the Christian holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Day in November.

Rituals of remembrance

Throughout Dia de los Muertos, family members and friends tend to the gravesites of their loved ones, clearing away grass and debris and adorning the space with favourite trinkets and food and drinks. The colourful and playful ofrendas include earthly tributes for both children and adults: toys and tequila top many of the tombstones. Marigolds, also known as the flower of the dead (cempasuchil), adorn table settings, altars and final resting places. Above the bright orange flowers hang colourful paper with cut out images (papel picado) of flowers, birds or skeletons. The images of the skeletons (calacas) are not fear-inspiring. Instead, they capture a joyful moment of dancing or drinking.

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The first day (Nov. I) is All Saints Day and focuses attention and prayers on los angelitos, or little angels representing the souls of children. The second day (Nov. 2) is All Souls Day and welcomes home adults. In some homes, the family elder presides over the festivities and place settings are reserved for the recently departed. At the end of the two-day celebration of the dead, the living partake of the feast for the now departed honourees. They drink the water – and other favourite beverages – and consume the specially baked bread-of-the-dead (pan de muerto) and treats made from aIfenique (sugar). Among the most popular of the powdered sugar figures are skulls (calaveras) that display the names of loved ones.
According to Julia Guernsey, the Dia de los muertos rituals are meaningful reminders of the connections between life and death, between the living and the dead. For Mexicans confront death and view it as just another part of life”. (P.S.)


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