A Celebration of Death

“To the modern Mexican, death doesn’t have any meaning. …To the inhabitant of New York, Paris or London, death is a word that is never uttered because it burns the lips. The Mexican, on the other hand, frequents it, mocks it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. It is one of his favorite toys and most permanent lover.” – Octavio Paz, from The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950).

The indigenous people of Mexico have always had a unique relationship with death. More than three thousand years ago the ancient civilizations honored death. The Aztecs, Mayans, Totoncas and the Purepecha believed that death completed the cycle of life. The completion of the life-death circle was both a natural and logical part of existence. Rather than focusing on the actual death of a person, they concentrated on the journey of the spirit. For the pre-Hispanic Mexican, the concept of good and bad at the time of death did not exist. There was no thought of final judgment and no thought of reincarnation.

Honoring the Dead

The festivities for Dia de los Muertos in Mexico usually start the last week in October. With the culmination of events on November 2nd. Throughout the small towns and big cities vendors lay out the traditional products needed for the ofrendas (altars). There are flowers, incense, candles, saints and crosses. Photos of the dead and memorabilia associated with their departed loved ones complete each altar. Paper and cardboard skeletons sell briskly at markets for the home decorations. Bakeries sell massive amounts of the traditional “bread of the dead” elaborately decorated with skull images.

Altar Preparations

Many of the foods prepared for the altar and gravesites include corn tamales, mole, pumpkin and hot chocolate. Some altars include beer and tequila in remembrance of the dearly departed that indulged in drink. After gathering at the altar the family will travel to the cemetery. That’s where they share stories and memories of their dearly beloved, departed family members. Children receive toys and candy shaped like skulls. These gifts reinforce that death should not be feared. Parents want their children to understand that death is part of the circle of life.

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