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The Day of the Dead in Mexico

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Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán, Mexico
Credit: Denisse Morelos

The Day of the Dead in Mexico, which mixes beliefs from Catholicism and traditional pre-Columbian beliefs, has grown and evolved over the centuries. In my home state of Louisiana, November 2nd meant soap, water and vinegar to clean graves, but in Mexico the celebration co-exists with death as well as any other culture celebrates life. It’s a time to remember the people we loved and who loved us, and the people who didn’t love us despite our best efforts.

For the pre-Columbian indigenous people – some population estimates say more than 12 million people – the afterlife was part of life, as real and tangible as the coming of spring.

Pre-Columbian traditions vary a bit but there were usually two or three years after death before an altar was put up. This recognized the time it would take for the soul to make its journey to the afterlife.

After the Spanish arrived, those people more influenced by Catholicism put altars up on the first Day of the Dead after passing. The altars have personal items, like shoes, clothes and pipes, along with symbolic totems, usually made from sugar, like skulls, marigolds and sometimes incense.

This year I learned if the wife dies first you place a sugar coffin with an image of a man usually drinking beer on the grave. The more popular brands dominate this market so the woman who told me this had struggled to find a coffin with a six-pack of Budweiser!

Marigolds are everywhere, which is a most delightful part of the Day of the Dead celebration. Families often spend the day together with food and drinks at the graveside. This is your opportunity to learn that your ancestor rode with Pancho Villa or that your uncle drank enough pulque to kill himself (but if you had known your aunt, it was perhaps more of a relief than a tragedy). This is the major way to pass family lore on to other generations, but that part seems to be disappearing,

A number of years ago a man who was the head of the veladors (watchmen) at Fabrica La Aurora, where I then lived, died suddenly. It was sad for me and a great emptiness for all of us at the Fabrica. A few months later, in the hours before we opened to the public for the Day of the Dead evening, I was walking through the Fabrica and noticed an altar. I walked over to look at it and was stunned. I had not thought about our velador having an altar and I was touched by his personal items, including his favorite tequila, but when I saw his shoes, which I remembered from every day, I wept.

I continue to celebrate his wonderful after-life, but I greatly appreciate his altar for giving me the opportunity to feel the depth of my feelings.

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