It may seem morbid to the outsider but Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is anything but this to Mexicans. Taking place at the start of November, the Day of the Dead is a celebration where the dead can come alive again; something particularly fascinating for those who understand death differently.
Today the festival represents a mixture of Mesoamerican rituals, European beliefs and Spanish culture, but its original Aztec form wasn’t all that different. The celebration was originally held for a month in the summer but the actual practices seen have remained very similar. Today, offerings left to dead relatives still include candles, food, and ‘sugar skulls.’
A ‘sugar skull’ or calavera forms a large part to the idea behind the festival. Made from pouring a mixture of sugar and water into moulds, calaveras are often decorated with vibrant icing sugar and colourful beads. Sugar skulls are a literal reminder that life is ‘sweet’, but also represent that although a loved one is dead, their journey in the afterlife continues. The Aztecs considered death to be the beginning of a new journey to Mictlan – the final resting place for souls. Before reaching Mictlan, the dead traveller must face nine challenging obstacles before they can reach their final resting place. The belief that all this awaits one after death perhaps helps relatives overcome the idea that death is simply the end.
Dia de los Muertos offers families the chance to once again feel close to dead relatives. The boundaries between the living and dead are explored by the idea that the living eat, drink and listen to music in the presence of the dead. Traditionally, it is said that the dead partake in their share of the festivities by taking the spirit of the food, drink and music for themselves during the celebrations. While the living gain pleasure from remembering their dead relatives or friends, the dead take the love that is being generated by the living from evoking these memories. It’s essentially a two-way system that makes the boundaries between the living and dead even more fine.
It’s a different interpretation of dealing with death. While most of us will remember our dead in times of solemnity, many Mexicans view it as something that is not to be feared. It’s just a part of life that we have to face and in Mexican culture it has become central in the way they view life.