For those of you who do not live in Mexico, Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, may appear to be just a strange custom that celebrates death. It is a celebration of death, but it is by no means strange. Mexicans, fatalists that they are, accept death as a part of the life cycle uncomplainingly and bravely. During Dia de los Muertos Mexicans celebrate the dead even while they weep.
The Day of the Dead, which is celebrated on November 2, is a national holiday. The celebrations really start the day before on All Saints Day, November 1, when the deceased children, the angelitos, are remembered. The most spectacular and very artistic manifestations of this celebration are the altars to the dead, remembering family and dear friends. Altars are covered with an especially nice cloth and pictures of those who have died are arranged on the altars.
Also, arrangements of flowers of the season, especially orange marigolds, the traditional flower of the dead, are placed on the altar. Another artistic touch is a special candle for each deceased soul. Some families order commemorative artisan candles of beeswax with decorative lace and flowers on the candle stick.
Since our retirement move to Lake Chapala in 2007, we have adopted this custom annually to remember our parents. The distance between Ajijic and where they are buried in the United States prevents us from visiting their graves on Memorial Day in May, so this autumn custom in Mexico calls us to remembrance in a special way. Our Dia de los Muertos altar is the coffee table in our living room.
In both Catholic and Anglican Church tradition, November 1 is celebrated to glorify all the saints, known and unknown. Among those unknown, we can include our family members and friends. In Mexico, the welcoming of departed souls dates back centuries in the native indigenous culture. The religious and indigenous customs are frequently combined to form unique and traditional holidays. When the Spaniards came in the early 16th century they found an Aztec culture that honored its dead. The Spaniards and Franciscan missionaries took this indigenous custom and worked it into their own observation. This was the birth of Dia de los Muertos.
Preparations begin late in October, as graves are weeded, cleaned and decorated. Many people spend hours at the town cemetery on both November 1 and 2. A fiesta is held, as relatives and friends picnic at the graves. Anybody who goes to a cemetery, will see people covering the tombs of their beloved with flowers, food and drinks. After the dear departed have been remembered in prayers, the living eat the favorite dishes of the deceased and drink the wine and tequila in their memory. It wouldn’t be a Mexican fiesta, either, if there was not music, so families gather musicians, hired or family members, to serenade their departed loved ones.
Mexicans like to look death in the eye. It remains a sad time when a loved family member or friend passes from earthly life, but it is viewed as that final stage in the life cycle all humans endure. As one anthropologist said: “We don’t fear death. It is something we joke about, which we eat with, which are children play with. That way we become familiar with death. The way of death is a Mexican’s way of life.”
The topic of death is not an easy one for many of us to discuss. It is a reality, however, for everyone. One aspect of the good life in Mexico is to search out positive life experiences, rather than negative ones. One valuable lesson Catherine and I learned when we moved to Lake Chapala is that nothing is gained by stress. Too much stress can be very damaging to your health. The Day of the Dead may be difficult to wrap your mind around as a time of celebration, but as one good friend told us: “You are not really dead until you have no one left to remember you and celebrate that memory.”