Have you ever thought of death as something colorful, cherished, venerated? I imagine not… Death is always the symbol of an end, the ultimate end. Death in many religions is the step to eternity… a transformation. In metaphysics, the changing of matter into energy or light. But something colorful, with music, dancing, delicious food and drink?
That is how “Día de Muertos” is present in Mexico and how it is celebrated. Depending on the region, you may find different types of meals, music, decorations, but the essential elements will always be there: the deceased members of the family, orange flowers called ‘cempasúchitl’ in Mexico, skulls made of sugar or the modern version, made of chocolate, dancing skeletons made of papier mache, or of plastic, and the traditional Pan de Muerto, or ‘bread of the dead’ a sweet yeast bread with formed dough bones as decoration.
Are Mexicans not afraid of dead or why do they seem to mock dead? They write funny poems, called calaveras, that are like a funny obituary to their living friends. They also decorate sugar skulls with the names of the living and they cook the favorite meal of the dead, leaving it served on an altar hoping that the dead will drop by and eat a little bit. These two days in November are then the bridge to the world of the dead… Does that sound creepy? It may be. Where do these ideas come from?
(Picture courtesy of my brother)
In pre-hispanic Mesoamerica, which started in the central part of Mexico and went way south to northern Costa Rica, in the time the aztec empire occupied that area death had a dedicated god. This god of the dead was called Mictlantecuhtli, in Spanish el señor de los muertos, the king of Mictlán (Chicunauhmictlan), a section of the underworld (now take a deep breath and try to pronounce the Aztec words…) As any other aztec god, he was venerated in many different regions and had his own ceremonial rites performed by the priests of dead.
If you want to know more about him, follow this link:
In Mesoamerica, skulls and skeletons were part of the decoration of temples and dead had an important part in everyone’s life.
When the first Spanish missionaries arrived to Mexico around 1530 something, they started converting,missioning, the naturals of those parts of the earth, to the catholic religion. Most of these conversions were forceful and threatening to the so called ‘indian’ population. However, some of the missionaries, being shocked with the brutality used to mission the people, they decided to use a more ‘human’ conversion and they started tolerating some of the traditional rites adapted to catholic celebrations.
More on missionaries in New Spain: http://www.mexicodesconocido.com.mx/los-misioneros-en-la-nueva-espana.html
There is a very old town, rather a village, called San Andrés Mixquic, close to the huge Mexico City where you can appreciate exactly this integration of Aztec beliefs in catholic Mexico. Every Mexican village has a main church and a main square, where people used to gather. Many of theses catholic churches were built using the materials that were part of a pre-hispanic temple. In this town, the cemetery attached to the church still keeps its Aztec decoration, showing skulls, bones and other skeletal parts made of stone to decorate the graves, but also real skulls and bones were piled close to the tombs… This I found really creepy. The graves, that were very old, showed the names of the inhabitants which were usually a Christian first name accompanied by a nahuatl, or aztec, surname. I found this town to be a fantastic relic of the past.
Let’s move to a nicer element, the orange flowers, called Cempasúchitl. The golden orange flower is well known all over the world. It is named “marigold” in the English speaking world and its scientific name is Tagetes erecta. I was reading that in Mexico this flower is also used to cure abdominal pain. In Germany, it is very popular in the Summer gardens to attract snails and avoid them eating other flowers or vegetables.
What about food? I was mentioning above that families like to prepare the favorite meal of the remembered dead family members. However I have never seen KFC (fried chicken) or tiramisu or burritos in any of the altars… So what is usually cooked in these days? In Mexico, as it is Fall, you usually cook a dessert with lots of molasses (in this case a dark sugar cane sirup) and pumpkins. To make it even tastier, cinnamon, cloves and oranges are added, too. You can imagine that every family has a secret recipe. Another traditional dessert is one similar, but using a small orange fruit, sour and tasteless, called “tejocote” instead of pumpkin.
However, a real meal to commemorate your dead relatives would be nothing without some “Pan de Muerto”, Here you can find a recipe, in Spanish though: http://www.mexicodesconocido.com.mx/pan-de-muerto.html
It is usual to find all theses elements on an familiar altar in many Mexican homes. The altar will include cempasúchitl, pan de muerto, may be some “mole”, or another real spicy dish, and nice photos of the relatives that are not anymore among us.
People usually go to the graveyard in those ares and take care of the graves arranging them with colorful flowers. I remember visiting the graves of my grandparents and buying the flowers in one of the many booths at the entrance of the graveyard. I also remember as a child that there were lots of “gladiolas”, gladioli or gladiolus, mostly white or pale pink and carnations. I don’t know why, but to me these gladioli always make me think of a cemetery…so don’t send me any 😉
I almost forgot to mention the dancing. There was a very famous illustrator, Javier Guadalupe Posada, who depicted skeletons and skulls in Mexican daily life, as part of life and not death. He satirized the political situation of the dictatorial Mexico he lived in.
Music and dancing have an important role in celebrating any festivity. To celebrate Día de Muertos in many cemeteries, especially in the smaller towns and villages, live music is played while children, people and animals, like dogs or pigs, are simply running or playing around. This celebration usually takes place by night and a sea of candles will light the darkness. In Mexico, in the state of Michoacán there is a folk dance called “La Danza de los Viejitos” ( The Dance of the old ones) performed during the celebration of “Dia de Muertos”… a little bit macabre, but quite true…
Many elements of these celebrations my be found in cultural expressions, for example, in films, paintings, and popular folklore. In 1960, a film conjugated successfully many of these special elements in a surrealistic atmosphere. It is called “Macario” based “on the novel of the same name by B. Traven, set in the Viceroyalty of New Spain (modern-day Mexico)” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macario_(film)).
To finish this fascinating topic, I would like to include some popular sayings in Spanish that show the sarcastic and humorous way of seeing dead in Mexico :
“El muerto al pozo y el vivo al gozo”. (more or less… The dead to the water well and the living to pleasure)
“No andaba muerto, andaba de parranda”. (He wasn’t dead, he was out partying). This is also the refrain of a popular song.
“De gordos y tragones están llenos los panteones”. (Graveyards are full of fat and gluttons) Mmmm, nowadays completely political incorrect. Sorry…
“El que por su boca muere hasta la muerte le sabe”. ( The one who eats by the mouth, savors even the death)
And there are tons and tons of saying, songs, pictures, music… to joke about death in Mexico.