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Día de los Muertos: A Tradition That Never Dies

by planetnomad on October 25, 2010

Poet Emily Dickinson fixated on it and personified it in her writing.  Some religions respect it and view it as a reincarnation of the soul.  For others, it’s a state of permanence that opens the door to sadness and fond memories. These are just some of the ways many have observed death and dealt with it over time.  In Mexico, to cope with and reflect on death in the long-term, takes on a colorful, celebratory, and even, fiesta-like atmosphere.  This ritual of celebrating something considered so solemn and empty for a lot of us predates even the Spanish arrival in Mexico and is known as “Día de los Muertos” or Day of the Dead.  It is a national holiday and celebrated throughout the  country from small village towns to large cities.

Originally an Aztec tradition, Day of the Dead has evolved as a marriage between Catholicism and indigenous ritual.  It has its roots in the Mesoamerican belief of an afterlife with departed souls journeying to a place called El Mictlán.  There, it was thought that the “lady of death”, Mictecacíhuatl, would preside and watch over the deceased souls.  But, to get to that location, it was a long and complex journey that would require burying the dead with those items essential for a safe and fruitful passage.  Quite often these items were objects, which were used by the deceased during his living years.

"La Catrina", iconic image associated with Day of the Dead

Now, in keeping with the original philosophy of an afterlife, November 1st and 2nd are set aside as dates that extend beyond a mere remembrance of loved ones, and offer families the opportunity to play “hosts” to their departed ones through processions, altar-building and the gift of offerings.

November 1st is better known as “All Saints’ Day” and is believed by many to signify the day when the souls of children return, while November 2nd is reserved for the return of adults’ souls and celebrated as “All Souls’ Day”.  In both instances, loved ones prepare elaborate altars either at cemeteries or in their personal homes to “welcome them back”.

The construction of an altar can take on many forms and levels, which are then adorned with offerings for the departed.  In typical Aztec tradition, it’s common to assemble an altar in three levels where one level represents the earth, another the heavens and a final one, the afterlife. Offerings are then placed upon the altar and may include personal favorites of the deceased along with sugar and chocolate skulls, tequila, a favorite dish and the common fixture of “pan de muertos” or bread of the dead, which symbolizes the bounty of the earth.

Known as cempasúchil or "flower of the dead"

Upon completion of the altar and placement of a photo of the deceased relative, a pathway is created with marigolds or cempasúchil, known as “flower of the dead”.  Through their scent, these flowers are thought to “guide” the deceased back home to visit.

And though many families maintain this tradition of altar building, several opt to partake in the larger public festivals held annually from small towns to large cities throughout Mexico.  Two of the largest events are held in Oaxaca and in the State of Michoacán every year.

Though numerous celebrations occur in small and remote indigenous villages throughout the state of Oaxaca, the largest and most recognized of all takes place in Oaxaca City.  There, the fiesta-like energy starts gaining momentum usually a week prior to November 1st.  During that time, music, traditional food, and vibrant flowers and offerings can be found throughout the city.  The festivities culminate on the night of November 1st when the main cemetery, Panteón General, established in 1777 to bury victims of a smallpox epidemic, becomes the epicenter for the merging of the living with the dead.  On that night, relatives of the deceased will gather around the graves to reconnect and “share” food, drink and stories with their departed ones.

Another large festival paying homage to this annual event is held near the small colonial town of Pátzcuaro, Michoacán.  Located an hour southwest of the capital city of Morelia, this town is best known for the uniquely-shaped butter-fly net boats which sport around its sizeable lake.  On this same lake is where the tiny island of Janitzio is found and plays host to a large Day of the Dead event with families and others holding a candlelight vigil at the village cemetery.

One thing is certain about this traditional holiday, death is not a sign of taboo or fear in Mexico, instead, it’s a concept that’s embraced and celebrated with the full gusto of the living. In fact, it’s become so popular internationally that in 2003 UNESCO listed Día de los Muertos on its prestigious “List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”.  Now, the celebrations spill into places beyond Mexico’s borders and can be found in Latin America as well as some US cities.

The following is a list of US cities honoring Day of the Dead with various events and activities.

Chicago:

Day of the Dead Concert at Chicago Sinfonietta

Day of the Dead at the Navy Pier

Seattle:

Day of the Dead Celebration by the Phinney Neighborhood Association

Festal 2010: Day of the Dead at Seattle Center

New York:

Vida Breve – Day of the Dead at the National Museum of Mexican Art

Los Angeles:

Hollywood Forever presents Day of the Dead

Vivan Los Muertos at the Autry Center

San Francisco:

Day of the Dead in The Mission

Sacramento:

El Panteon de Sacramento at the La Raza Galeria Posada

Atlanta:

Atlanta’s Inaugural Day of the Dead Celebration

San Diego:

Day of the Dead in Old Town San Diego

Day of the Dead at Mission San Luis Rey

San Antonio:

33rd Annual Dia de los Muertos Celebration & Exhibit

Say Si’s 4th Annual Muertitos Fest 2010

Phoenix:

Dia de los Muertos at the Desert Botanical Garden

Celebrate Day of the Dead at the Mesa Arts Center

For events in Mexico, see the following links

Pátzcuaro, Michoacán

Oaxaca, Oaxaca


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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Pamela October 25, 2010 at 11:16 pm

Great post, Mark! Always a fan.
I had no idea about some of the information on your post. Loved it. Thanks for sharing. :)

planetnomad October 26, 2010 at 9:50 pm

Thanks for stopping by Pamela…very pleasant surprise :) Yeah, the history connected with the Holiday is fascinating and really makes one appreciate how traditions can endure over the long run. Thank goodness some people have the foresight to maintain a culture’s traditions, language and foods…gotta love that! Thanks again for your kind comments and for visiting! Happy Travels!

Lisa E / chickybus October 26, 2010 at 10:28 pm

Great job on this…your photos and the way you wrote it make me want to visit! I’ve been to Oaxaca twice, but just in the summer. I would imagine it’s really amazing in late October into November.

Wonder what it would be like to be there in that cemetery with everyone “sharing” and “reconnecting”….if I were there, I would definitely check it out (despite not being a fan of cemeteries). :)

planetnomad October 28, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Thanks for your very generous comments Lisa! I wrote a paper back in college about Emily Dickinson and found out about her fixation with death; I guess it helped that she lived across a cemetery and would see the processions quite often. Anyhow, yeah, Oaxaca and Pátzcuaro are the two that drive the most attention because they really go all out in their celebrations. I personally would love to be in DF someday for this event. Aside from loving the city so much, I think it would be fascinating to be there amongst the crowds. Thanks again for your visit and Happy Travels to you!

Russell Burck October 29, 2010 at 8:39 am

What a terrific post, Mark. Super pix, great site.
One of my colleagues in the Dept of Religion, Health, and Human Values at Rush U Med Ctr in Chicago was a big fan of Dia de los Muertos. I forwarded your post to her. I learned a lot from it. When I taught Death and Dying, one of the things that stood out for me was the influence of the dead over the living. Another was the concept of the deceased as a kind of patron who intercedes on behalf of the living. I found myself wondering, as I read your piece, whether
* people talk and act on behalf of the dead when they’re at the gravesite,
* the celebration reduces or increases the tendency of people to return to the gravesite afterwards,
* you all have rituals similar to those of Tibetan Buddhism to assist the soul on its journey?
Thanks for the info re Dia de los Muertos events in various US cities.
Russ’s latest blog: After the Awe: Wild West, Returning Falcons to the Wild, Grand Teton NP, http://bit.ly/aZAAXD

Lisa E / chickybus October 31, 2010 at 9:08 pm

I didn’t know that Emily D lived across from a cemetery….interesting. I hear you–DF would be a cool place to be. It must really exciting during this time!

Berniemack HabagatCentral November 1, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Love this one. Dia de los Muertos is strikingly similar to what we practice here in the Philippines (most probably brought by the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade) as “Araw ng mga Patay.” — a national holiday. This one is informative, as it has traced its roots to the Aztec belief of death and the departed.

I just wonder why Patzcuaro is “the place to be” for Dia de los Muertos? Same as in Oaxaca.

If only Mexico is near, I could’ve gone there. My curiosity on parallelisms between Filipino culture and the Mexican culture is what drives me to know more.

planetnomad November 1, 2010 at 10:32 pm

Thanks Russell for your generous comments and visit! I am really glad you enjoyed this piece enough to share with a colleague. That’s the ultimate compliment! What an interesting class to teach on “Death and Dying”…I would’ve certainly enjoyed taking such a course during my college years! You pose some great questions here and make me think about all the different ways societies look at death and how they deal with it in the long-term. As I’m sure you know, traditions are mostly based on a few sound practices and then become splintered and “washed” down through time as well the various treatments or approaches the “locals” assign to them. In Mexico’s case, this holds true as well. You can go from one region of the country where a certain custom is practiced a certain way, to another area where the same practice might incorporate new elements or omit them altogether. That’s the beauty, in my opinion, of studying a culturally rich country such as Mexico! Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

Mike November 2, 2010 at 4:04 pm

Fascinating. I’ve often wondered what the cultural significance of Day of the Dead is. Thanks for an enlightening read!

planetnomad November 3, 2010 at 12:09 am

Berniemack: Thanks for visiting and sharing your comments! You’re right there are a lot of commonalities between the Mexican and Filipino cultures, from the food, customs and language. A lot of that has to do, as you well know, with the Spanish presence in both countries and the significant stamp left behind after independence was achieved. Though I’ve not been to the Philippines yet, I also find the cultural connections between it and Mexico fascinating. A lot of that is driven by having several Filipino friends here in the Bay Area that share the food, language and bits of the culture with me. In reply to your question about why the biggest celebrations center around Patzcuaro & Oaxaca, this quite possibly stems from the fact that in both regions there are heavy concentrations of indigenous groups which practiced the tradition prior to the arrival of the Spanish. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and the kind comments!

planetnomad November 3, 2010 at 12:30 am

Thanks for paying a visit Mike and sharing your comments…I appreciate it! Yep, this holiday has been a mystery for a lot of people, but has really gained more and more recognition over the years. This especially happens when UNESCO highlights an area or event as one of special significance. Thanks again for the visit…Cheers!

Scott October 10, 2011 at 9:23 pm

Mark, great post my friend! I am so excited as I will be in the DF for Dia De Los Muertos. In addition, it will be my first time ever visiting Mexico! Ever since I had to write a report on this event in high school, I have always had the utmost love for it, even though I had never experienced it personally. Based upon our research, we will be heading one night to Mixquic south of Mexico City, which is regarded as having one of the nations biggest festivals. Anyway, would it be cool to email you and ask you some questions about Mexico City before I take off in three weeks? thanks again!

planetnomad October 11, 2011 at 1:47 pm

Thanks a bunch Scott for your visit and your kind words! How exciting that this will be your first trip to Mexico! You have to keep us posted on all your experiences while in the country. Please feel free to contact me anytime for any assistance you made need. I may not have all the answers, but will truly do my part to assist you in any way I can. Have a super trip and please keep us in the loop with how things are going for you! Have fun!

Sally Jimenez November 2, 2012 at 10:47 am

Hello Mark!!! I loved your article, I even sent it to a friend in London, it has great info… I hope youre doing great! Send you hugs… :)

planetnomad November 3, 2012 at 9:28 am

Sally, I appreciate your kind words and your visit to the site! As you know, this is just one of Mexico’s many wonderful traditions that truly make it a country with a unique cultural identity! Hope you’re well! Thanks again!

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