Los Dias de los Muertos, or the days of the dead, is the hardest of the Mexican celebrations for expats to understand. This holiday coincides with the Day of All Saints and the Day of All Souls on November 1st and November 2nd and evokes memories of Memorial or Remembrance Day.
To understand old customs in modern Mexico requires starting to understand the turbulent history of the land and the complex heritage of the Mexican people and their attitudes and beliefs, which are a complicated mixture of ancient Aztec culture, their Spanish ancestors and the ensuing rich layers of Catholicism.
Daily life as an Aztec was uncertain; death waited at every turn. In fact, death was revered, believed to be the ultimate experience of life, life’s reward. With the sun as the ultimate god, Aztec warriors who died in battle, and women who died in childbirth, were believed to return as hummingbirds and butterflies who fluttered highest in the sky, nearest the sun. When the Spanish arrived, the friars richly layered the Catholic doctrines of heaven and hell on to this foundation of beliefs.
As premier author Octavio Paz said, “The Mexican…is familiar with death. [He] jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. It is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.”
The Day(s) of the Dead are a time for remembering friends and family who have gone on before. Mexicans believe the real and final death occurs only when there is no one left to remember. Remembering is the all-important aspect of the holiday, which provides closure for families who bury their dead less than 24 hours after the last breath is exhaled.
The act of honoring the dead with an altar studded with photographs, candles, mementos and favorite foods and drink of the loved ones allows the family time to remember, and helps transform grief into acceptance. Some of these offerings are assembled at the family gravesite. Flowers are placed and candles are lit for each of the dead. The living stay to visit, pray and recall the dead. The cemetery is alive with a grand family reunion—the gathering of large extended families, alive and dead, as the souls of the dead return to visit the living.
Once the night has passed, and the spirits have returned to their world, the ones remaining know that for another year they have triumphed in the struggle of life. They have faced death and have won.