Dia de los Muertos Part II. What it means to honor and embrace life while mocking death.
Since the creation of the human species, I suppose we have always struggled with the concept of death. Dia de los Muertos, which coincides with our Halloween, presents quite a different approach to our perception of life and death. Halloween has always been a fun holiday where we dress in costumes, children knock on doors and receive candy, and over the top parties are attended by adults. It is a fun holiday and in true fashion, we have commercialized it to an extreme. In Mexico, the dates are similar, beginning the night of October 31st and concluding on November 2nd. November 1st commemorates infants and children who have passed, November 2nd is for the adults. Although these dates are the same as as All Saints Day (Nov.1) and All Souls Day (Nov. 2) as celebrated in the Catholic Church, Dia de los Muertos seems to have had its beginnings among the indigenous cultures of Mexico long before the Spaniards arrived with their religious traditions. Although, many cultures around the world have adopted their own traditions pertaining to Death, Mexico seems to have embraced all aspects of the end of life as we know it. Dia de los Muertos when celebrated amongst the people and cultures in Michoacan, Guanajuato, and Jalisco as I have been fortunate enough to experience and through these experiences I have found that the fundamental fact and indescribable beauty of this celebration is about remembering and honoring the lives that family and friends lived before they passed. Certainly death is part of living for everyone living person who walks this earth but a major misunderstanding of Dia de los Muertos is a celebration of death.
01.In towns and cities throughout Mexico, there are festivities of every type. Dancing in the streets is very much a part of the activity | 02. Beautiful and colorful dresses and La Catrina have arrived to encourage everyone to join in | 03. Lovely ladies of all ages paint their faces in the traditional way and wear marigolds in their hair.
In our previous blog, we featured the artist Jose Guadalupe Posada and how he utilized the satirical incorporation of Death in his artwork to make strong statements signaling the social inequities that existed in Mexican society in the early 1900's and the unavoidable revolution that lay ahead. Posada viewed Death as "The Great Equalizer", and that no matter your color or creed, your wealth or your poverty, everyone ends up as a pile of bones with a skull on top. His beliefs were clearly dramatized in his artwork and these images have become an integral part of the celebration of Dia de los Muertos in Mexico
The traditional customs and celebrations associated with Dia de los Muertos in central Mexico are an experience that will forever last in your memory if you are able to attend. From the cemeteries to the center of town, the entire area is awash in golden marigolds. They have become the "Flor de Muerto" or flower of the dead throughout Mexico. There are so many flowers that the entire area takes on a warm, golden, welcoming glow. You cannot help but to be drawn into all of the activities. Somehow the sadness and grief from the loss of the loved one transforms into a beautiful celebration of their life. The focal point of this event is the Ofrenda, or altar that is built in honor of the deceased. They are typically erected at the gravesite and also in the home or public spaces such as schools or libraries. The ofrenda usually features a photo of the individual and the structure is filled with his or her favorite items, food, drink, sports memorabilia and more. The belief is that the ofrenda and the scent of the marigolds invites the departed souls to join in the festivities held in their honor and hear the prayers of the loved ones left behind.
01. Families arrive at the cemetery to tend to the marigolds that have been planted in a raised flower bed amongst the grave sites | 02. The grave sites are raised with fresh soil and covered with marigolds a few days prior to October 31st. Wooden structures are erected at the head of the grave and then covered with fresh marigolds. It is common for a grave to have only a cross with the name painted onto the cross. Headstones are a luxury that few can afford | 03. A smaller cemetery on Lake Patzcuaro that is aglow with candles and marigolds. The hearts are covered with fresh marigolds.
We engage in similar activities in the U.S. and we experience this most often when there is a tragic death and even strangers bring flowers, photos, stuffed animals and flowers to the site of the tragedy. In the case of the mass shooting in Las Vegas 4 years ago, there was a space that was secured in the downtown area within a few days of the tragedy where people could bring many things to commemorate those lost in the shooting and the community was able to gather, grieve, and begin a much needed healing process.
It is important to add to this elucidation of Dia de los Muertos, 21 years ago in the infancy of our family business and first explorations through Mexico, I had absolutely no understanding of this ceremony. I saw the skeletal figures everywhere in our travels and initially was quite surprised and felt them to be somewhat offensive. Little did I know how my perception would change as I gained a much deeper understanding of Dia de los Muertos and the culture that surrounds it and has grown over time. Experiencing the authentic traditions of Dia de los Muertos in Patzcuaro, Michoacan, Mexico has deeply affected my life in ways I never thought possible and has added a much deeper understanding and respect for not only the culture and traditions of Mexico, but of Life and Death.
01. The statue of Bishop Vasco de Quiroga in the center of a fountain in the Plaza Grande in Patzcuaro, Michoacan, adorned with fresh marigolds. Bishop Quiroga was an educator and humanitarian who is credited with the founding of Patzcuaro | 02. A view overlooking a cemetery at night | 03. The cemeteries truly become "alive" during Dia de los Muertos