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Weekly Alibi Día de Los Muertos

Days of Our Lives, Days of Our Deaths

By Valerie Yarberry

NOVEMBER 1, 1999: 

"... Death revenges us against life, stripping it of all its vanities and pretensions and showing it for what it is: some bare bones and a dreadful grimace ... Skulls made of sugar or tissue paper, painted skeletons hung with fireworks, our popular representations of death always mock at life; they are the affirmation of the nothingness and insignificance of human existence. We decorate our homes with skulls and on the Day of the Dead we eat bread in the form of bones and enjoy the songs and jokes in which bald death has the laughs; but all this swaggering familiarity does nothing to rid us of the question we all have to ask: 'what is death?'" -- Octavio Paz, 1959

Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), the ancient practice of commemorating the dichotomies of life and death, the living and the dead, has existed since the pre-Hispanic Aztec era and is still observed annually in Mexico -- perhaps the country's most popular holiday. Since the early 1970s, when Mexican-Americans underwent a sort of cultural reawakening, observance of Día de los Muertos spread among many cultures in the United States, particularly in the Southwest, in celebrations that take place each year on Nov. 1 and 2. And while in many cultures death is considered a morbid subject to be avoided, Día de los Muertos ceremonies treat it instead as a celebration of life, a remembrance and commemoration of a family's ancestors.


Día de los Muertos festivities have their roots in the ninth month of the Aztec solar calendar -- roughly the end of July and the beginning of August -- and were dedicated to children and the dead. Mesoamerican codices (painted screen-fold books), Nahuatl poetry and the presence of grave-goods abound with references to a belief in an afterlife, including allusions to "the beyond," the "region of the dead," "the place of the fleshless" and "the region of mystery." Attaining the afterlife, however, depended not on how people conducted themselves in life, but rather on how they died. Those who died a natural death made an obstacle-filled, four-year journey to Mictlan, the "place of the dead." Many separate realms existed for warriors who had died during battle, women who had died in childbirth, infants, and even those who had been struck by lightning. The Aztecs were wary of death and thus lived each day as a "rehearsal" for their afterlife.

The Aztec year consisted of 18 months, each of which had 20 days. This cycle encompassed several festivals or veintenas for various gods. Most prominent, however, were the two feast days of Miccailhuitontli, honoring "the Little Dead Ones," and Miccailhuitl, honoring "the Adult Dead." These feast days were presided over by the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl and were filled with activities that preceded the ritual offerings made to the dead: flowers were gathered, fruit was picked and turkeys and dogs were plucked and prepared. During the soul's four-year journey to Mictlan, the family of the deceased would decorate the gravesite and make offerings of food to help the soul on its journey. Altars were erected in remembrance of deceased loved ones, and elaborate ceremonies that included dancing, singing and sacrifices consumed the next 20 days. These feasts bore a resemblance to the Catholic practice of All Saints' and All Souls' Days, and this fact ultimately proved significant in the evolution of the celebrations.

Archaeological records indicate that the theme of death became more and more prevalent in Mexican culture over time: the pottery of the pre-Classic period (2000-200 BC), a sculpture of a skeleton found in Chiapas (1000-400 BC), and a stone featuring a skeletal representation from the Classic period (AD 200-900). The use of death imagery increased exponentially in the post-Classic era (AD 900-1520) in Central Mexico, the Mayan region and along the Gulf Coast.

The Spanish conquest of Mexico in the early 16th century brought incalculable changes to the indigenous culture. Hernán Cortés, one of the more notorious conquistadors, attempted to convert the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II and his people to Christianity or, more specifically, Catholicism. Moctezuma resisted Cortés' urging for some time, but the coercion eventually overcame him, and he permitted a Christian cross and an image of the Virgin Mary to be placed in the Great Temple of Tenochtitlán. Because the Spanish misunderstood the Aztec traditions, the Aztecs were treated as idolatrous and inferior. Eventually, nearly all of the Indians' customs were suppressed, and their images were decimated.

Following their invasion of Mexico and their attempts to convert Aztec natives or vanquish them altogether, Spanish Catholics altered the Día de los Muertos tradition to coincide with their own Christian celebrations of All Saints' Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls' Day (Nov. 2), staged in remembrance of dead children and of departed adults respectively. This convergence of traditional ceremonies was, in large part, another attempt by the Spaniards to convert the Indians to Catholicism. The Aztec fiesta and the Catholic feast day were fused into one event that now takes place from the evening of Oct. 31 to Nov. 2.


To participate in the present incarnation of Día de los Muertos or Los Días de los Muertos ("Day of the Dead" or, more appropriately, "Days of the Dead") is to honor deceased relatives and friends with revelry, feasts and elaborate celebrations. The essence of Día de los Muertos celebrations is twofold. First, participants know that life is transitory and death is imminent, but both should be celebrated, not feared. Second, it is believed that the souls of deceased relatives and friends visit the living and take part in the offerings or ofrendas made to them. According to tradition, though, the spirits of the dead are not permitted to partake of the festival's many confections, including sugary candies molded into skulls and skeletons and the traditional sweet pan de muerto (bread of the dead). Instead, families of the deceased consume the various goodies in tribute to their ancestors and in celebration of their annual journey back from the spirit realm.


Members of every social class who wish to remember their deceased traditionally do so by constructing an altar in their home. The altar may be very simple, consisting of a few candles and flowers. Typically, altars are ornamented with candles, incense, food, marigolds, toys, palm leaves, photographs of the deceased and some of their favorite objects. The more recent the death, the larger the candle on the altar will be. Candles are usually paraffin or copal, a resin derived from evergreens.

The flowers chosen for the altar are also important. Traditionally, the marigold or cempasúchil adorns altars as the symbol of death. Marigold petals are also used to create a fragrant and vibrant path from the cemetery into the home, which guides returning souls to their feast. The photographs placed on the altar may depict the deceased engaged in their favorite activities, as Día de los Muertos remembers the dead with happiness, not sorrow.

Pan de muerto is a staple in altar creation. Although the bread is commonly oval (believed to be the shape of the soul), people bake the bread in a variety of lighthearted shapes. Tamales, sweets, fruit, mole, and other favorite foods are offered to the dead both at the altar as well as the gravesite. On the evening of Nov. 2, the family gathers to consume the food and reminisce about the departed.


Prior to the festivities, families converge in the vast markets to decide on offerings such as sugar skulls (calaveras), toys, cakes, breads, fruits, candles, and papeles picados (punched paper). Villagers also parade through town dressed as skeletons and ghosts, carrying an open coffin into which candies, oranges and flowers are thrown.

One hallmark of Día de los Muertos celebrations is the cleaning and ornamentation of the gravesites. Carrying candles and their offerings, the community unites and proceeds to the cemeteries. Depending on the region, the families either travel solemnly or joyously. Generally, the gravesites are swept, weeded, raked, washed and adorned. In areas where the dead are buried above-ground, their tombs are scrubbed clean and painted bright colors. Children's graves are decorated with balloons and streamers. Chains of flowers are hung overhead, food offerings are made, candles are lit and families join in song. Many families remain in the cemetery all night, listening to music and enjoying a picnic.


Different categories of the deceased are believed to visit the family at different times. Children return first, and offerings specific to their tastes are made. Generally, the children visit at noon on Oct. 31, although some believe those not baptized arrive on Oct. 30.

At noon on Nov. 1, when the souls of the children depart again, the family focuses on providing for the adult souls. Adults remain with the family until noon on Nov. 2, and although they do not consume the offerings, they "absorb their essence." Mummers can often be seen running through the streets on Nov. 2 to chase the stubborn souls back to their realm.

Many people still believe in the Aztec legend that the spirits of the dead make their journey on or as hummingbirds or Monarch butterflies. Each year, the Monarch butterflies return from their sojourn in the United States and Canada and are welcomed by the locals in the Día de los Muertos festivities.


During the celebrations, large cities and villages alike are filled with images of the calaveras. These images are manifest in many ways, most often as papier mâché figurines, costumes, puppets, sugar skulls that children name and trade, and a variety of other forms. Dioramas often depict skeletons involved in everyday activities such as changing a tire on a car or having their hair styled in a salon. In any case, the skeletons -- and Día de los Muertos wherever and however it is celebrated -- mock the vanity of everyday life and always remind us of death's proximity.

Although the manner and details of Día de los Muertos celebrations vary by region and culture, the foundation of the holiday remains consistent: to honor and remember the dead and to rejoice in their journey. The festivities are never macabre; rather, they hinge on the family's love for and their remembrance of those departed.

"We, the people of Mexico, have our own way of remembering the dead. While the living honour their memory, the dead can never truly die. They die only if we forget them." -- Maria Antonieta Sanchez de Escamilla, Puebla City, 1989

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