Body and Soul

The Day of the Dead

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El Dia de los Muertos:
!Muertos de gusto!

"The word 'death' is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it; it is one of his favorite toys and most steadfast loves." ~ Octavio Paz The Labyrinth of Solitude

(c) Patrick Murillo

The Day of the Dead

El Dia de los Muertos is a perfect blend of a Pagan-Christian holiday. The native culture of Mexico and Latin America held a deep reverence for their ancestors and departed loved ones. Their transformation of All Hallow's Eve, All Saint's Day, and All Soul's Day into a festive occasion where death is celebrated as a natural part of life, is both a community spectacle and a time of reunion with family.

If you visit Mexico around Halloween, you may find that the most happening spot is the cemetery, with people walking between the graves, paying homage to their dead loved ones. It's a Mexican tradition: El Dia de los Muertos.

(c) Ann Murdy

Skeletons, tequila, paper flowers and candles all dot graveyards across Mexico come Oct. 31.  Day of the Dead celebrations are held throughout Mexico, but I experienced the tradition in Mixquic, a rustic village on the outskirts of Mexico City known for its elaborate festivities. The town's rural feel harkens back to its farming roots, which extend all the way to the Aztecs.

With Spanish colonization came a fusion of ancient beliefs and Christian customs. The blend, turbulent over the centuries, brought fear of death and the repression of death's imagery until the skull and skeleton images reemerged in the 18th century, but with a less serious, more jocular tone.

In Mixquic, the townspeople figure death can take a joke, and they are chummy with it in a way that seems macabre until one catches the mood. Graveyard family plots are brightly decorated and adorned with treats for the dead on Oct. 31; the spirits of children are thought to return before dawn on All Saints Day (Nov. 1) and the next day, All Souls Day, adults are honored.

From the Heard Museum
Celebration of Life Festival


Rituals, including simulated funeral processions, take place throughout these days, signaled by the tolling of a bell. People leave their doors open throughout the town, inviting others to visit their family's shrine.

In one home I was given pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, and I offered a few coins in a return gesture, taking time to admire the photos and memorabilia at the altar. Home altars traditionally display religious images, such as crucifixes, as well as food, flowers and sugar sculptures known as alfeniques, to coax the saints to provide safe return passage to the afterworld after the deads' visit to this one.

As midnight approaches, graves are lit with respectful candles, and the smoke of incense curls into the air, symbolic of the transformation of the physical to the ethereal. Skeletal mirth remains an inventive folk art theme, from sculptures in museums to humble puppeteers on the rooftops of the Mixquic houses.


People paying homage also can enjoy the antics of a figure in drag, camping and vamping it up on gravestones, in skull mask and in the fancy dress of "Catrina," an elegant lady skeleton popularized by artist Jose Guadalupe Posada in his political cartoons in the early 20th century.

(c) Ann Murdy.

Skulls -- calaveras are also prominent in Day of the Dead celebrations. Like their pre-Colombian ancestors, Mexicans see skulls as symbolizing life more than death they represent the cycle of life, death and rebirth. In a festive market set up outside the graveyard and church grounds, skulls made of sugar and chocolate abound, and colorful stalls offer chicken and drinks.

Flowers, including baby's breath and cockscomb, are everywhere, but marigolds -- zempasuchil, the traditional Aztec flower of the dead and a symbol of nature's regeneration -- are particularly favored. Their scent and color help guide the souls home and yellow petals line the pathways to houses, laid down by a family member whose scent the soul also recognizes.


Day of the Dead traditions also extend back to Mexico's indigenous ancients. They believed that souls of common people who died ordinary deaths awakened from a dream of life to rest in Mictlan (the Place of Death), a peaceful place formed by kindly gods, from which they visit their former homes and living relatives. The people openly embraced and celebrated images of death, which came to be seen as morbid after Christianity came to the area.


(c) Zarco Guerrero/Dierdre Hamill, AZ Republic

Most of us see death as an ending, a final loss. We assume that any possibility for reconciliation is gone.
Death need not cut us off from those we love. Through dreams and techniques using the imagination, we can access an inner relationship with a deceased loved one, a relationship that offers powerful and mostly untapped opportunities for healing, resolution, and even guidance.
Within you, your loved one lives on, and with your participation, your mutual relationship will grow and change.
-- Ecerpted from the article Healing Beyond Loss by Alexandra Kennedy. Other Day of the Dead text edited and excerpted from a September 21, 2000 article, with these photos, originally published by Fox News 

(c) Ann Murdy

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