Day of the Dead
The Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) is a popular holiday
celebrated throughout Latin American countries. In Mexico
it has become a major annual event anticipated several
weeks before the actual celebration, with massive altars covered
with offerings to deceased loved ones. Though now tied to the
Roman Catholic feast days of All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day
and All Souls’ Day (October 31–November 2), the Day of the
Dead is rooted in the observances followed by Native Americans
for centuries prior to the Spanish conquests. As with the
Neo-Pagan celebration of Halloween, the Day of the Dead is
seen as a time in which the spirits of the departed are seen as
especially close and communication is possible. It is a time of
remembrance, and the sorrow of the departure of loved ones
is caught up in a celebration of the continuance of life.
In the belief system underlying the celebration, there are
three possible resting places for the departed, one less desirable
place called Mictlan and two more desirable. The final resting
place is determined by the quality and number of acts committed
in this life that were pleasing to the gods. At the time
of death, the deceased is given a send-off that will assist in negotiating
the passages to his/her final resting place. On the Day
of the Dead, the home and/or graveyard is lit with candles,
strong incense is burned, and loud music is played as part of
the observance to assist the souls in finding their way back from
their resting place to join in the celebration.
As Halloween has become one of the most observed holidays
in North America (second only to Christmas in the number of
homes decorated), so the Day of the Dead is widely observed
from Ecuador to Mexico and southern California. Typical decorations
include food offerings and cempazuchitl flower arrangements
consisting of marigolds and candles. Food substances
typically include chocolate, fruits, tamales, taquila, and mascal.
Included in the decoration may be a set of marzipan skulls
(bread shaped like a skull) surrounding the picture of a loved
one especially remembered, or the pan de muerto, loaves of
bread sometimes in the shape of the human body, topped with
a crossed bone design. The decorations set the stage for a massive
party in which music is played, food eaten, and drinks designed
appropriately to alter one’s consciousness consumed.
Evidence of a celebratory period of acknowledgment of the
deceased at the end of the harvest season has been found by archeologists
in many pre-Columbian sites, especially in Mexico
and Central America. Following the Spanish conquest and the
establishment of Catholicism as the state religion, this period
of acknowledgement was incorporated into All Saints’ day and
All Souls’ Day, which conveniently coincided with the period,
and emerged as the Day of the Dead. In Mexican culture it includes
a belief in the unity of death and life.
Carmichael, Elizabeth. The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the
Dead in Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.
Gonzalez-Crussi, Frank. The Day of the Dead: And Other Moral
Reflections. San Diego: Harcourt-Brace, 1994.
Harrington, Kent. Día de los Muertos/Day of the Dead. Tucson,
Ariz.: Dennis McMillan Publications, 1997.