My father always says, “Don’t be afraid of the dead, have fear of the living,” this saying gives perfect entrée to a brief discussion of Day of the Dead. Dia de los Muertos is more than just a holiday celebrated throughout Latin America, with great prominence in central and southern Mexico. Those who maintain the traditions of Dia de los Muertos embody a particular worldview often over looked by the fetishization of this holiday through mainstream commercialization in recent years. Closer examination of this worldview sheds light on some of the beliefs and traditions associated with this holiday.
The festivities of day of the dead have a long history in regions with pre-hispanic indigenous ties. Prior to European colonization Aztec celebrations that honored the goddess of the afterlife, Mictecacihuatl were prominent in central Mexico. When Europeans arrived in the 15th century, these indigenous celebrations were combined with the Judeo-Christian beliefs of All Souls Eve, All Souls Day and All Saints Day, all of which continue to be celebrated according to the Catholic Triduum. Dia de los Muertos thus serves as an example of what anthropologists call religious syncretism or a combining of religious beliefs to suit the needs of a changing or diverse population.
An essential part of Dia de los Muertos is the reunion of the extended family unit at the cemeteries where family members are buried, as well as in the homes of the deceased. Neither place invokes fear, rather these places serve as conduits for allowing the souls of the deceased to be reunited temporarily for festivities with the living. Special prayers, rosaries, and masses are offered during this time to honor those who have passed away.
While many may think that Dia de los Muertos idolizes death because of the candy skulls and altars/ofrendas, these three days actually honor the lives of the deceased. Life is essentially believed to be interconnected with death as a continuous cycle that is embraced rather than feared. Ofrendas (offerings) are prepared in the home of the departed by their family members with photographs of loved ones near the top tear of the ofrenda. Marigold petals, because of their fragrance and bright color, are often used to make paths leading from the gravesite back to the altar of the home. Lit candles adorn the altars beckoning souls from the cemetery home to partake in the niceties of the living. Offerings of food and beverage such as pan dulce, chocolate, and other favorites, along with the vices of the living such as coca-cola, cigarettes and mezcal (an alcoholic drink made of the maguey plant), welcome souls back to the world of the living for a short period of time. These traditions bring joy to the deceased and peace to their familie.
While these festivities are becoming popularized as an extension to Halloween, the traditions are very different and have continued for generations in order to never forget those we love. During this Dia de los Muertos take time to remember your loved ones who have passed, allowing their memory to live on in your words, thoughts and actions that honor the joy they brought you while they graced this earth.