Raising the Dead
November marks one of Mexico's most lively traditions.
By Barbara Kastelein
The attitude towards death evidenced in the quintessentially Mexican
holiday of Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) might be puzzling for some. It
isn't difficult for foreigners to interpret dancing skeletons, candy skulls
and general drunken revelry as disrespect for the dead and grief at human
loss. Nothing could be further from the truth.
For those accustomed to hushed voices, formal clothing, a solemn priest
and an absence of children as fitting for the graveside, this festival flies
in the face of propriety. Bright flowers, loud music, colorful decorations
and seasonal sweets are characteristic of a popular cemetery in Mexico City
on the first two days of November.
This tradition has been relished in the past as uniquely Mexican. Nobel
laureate Octavio Paz said, "The Mexican . is familiar with death, jokes
about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his toys
and his most steadfast love."
Some academics are critical of the historical roots of Día de Muertos
and say that it is more about profit than respect for the dead. Certainly,
in some parts of Mexico City, the holiday has become a full-fledged tourist
attraction. Entrance fees to cemeteries have become the norm.
But the November 1 Noche de Muertos ritual goes on whether tourists come
or not. On the remote island of Pacanda on a lake in Michocán, as well as
Yunuen, one rarely finds a tourist.
Visitors to the far islands need to bring their own provisions, as no
tacos are sold, much less tourist trinkets. Moreover, the vigil also takes
place at an unexpected time-not the witching hour of midnight. At the
cementary on Pacanda, visitors begin to trickle in between 1 and 2 a.m. with
bundles of food, stacks of long white candles, and materials to construct
In contrast to urban graveyards, no one laughs or drinks. While the
graves are decorated, the atmosphere is industrious, and then settles into a
reverie, as candles flicker and locals settle into their blankets for a
long, cold night. It is not recognizably mournful, nor intensely
meditative-more a sort of limbo enhanced by the aroma of copal incense,
mixed with the smell of hot candle wax, fading damp flowers and weeds from
the lake. It seems perfect for spirits of the departed to return to sit in a
fond and melancholy communion with the living.
Preparing the Way
There is not just one Day of the Dead, but two - Day of the Little Dead,
for children, on November 1, and Day of the Adult Dead, on November 2.
The core elements of the holiday are family visits to decorate the tombs
where their ancestors lay, and offer food, drink and temporary altars. The
gist of the fiesta is that the spirits of the dead on these dates are able
to come back from the beyond to visit, if the living facilitate this
communion with petals of the cempazúchitl (an orange marigold
flower) pointing in the direction from the grave to the house. Altars and
tombs also feature candles to light the way, water for the dead to drink and
salt for the journey.
The poor walk between tombs, asking for the right to pray for the
deceased in exchange for food, a tradition shared with Spain and other Latin
American countries. Today, mariachis in the Dolores Cemetery in Mexico City
will sing a song for the difunto for a fee.
Children throughout Mexico have long used Day of the Dead to ask passers
by for their "calavera" - any sweet or pocket change. And
sweets fashioned for All Saints' and All Souls' Days are also featured in
However, Dr. Yolotl González, researcher with the National Anthropology
and History Institute (INAH), says that independent of colonial and
Christian influence, the tradition of celebrating "Los Muertos" is
basically a pre-Hispanic concept.
It is widely known that the Mexica, celebrated a fiesta called "Miccailhuitontli"
held in honor of dead children, and "Miccailhuitl" in honor of the
adult dead. But before the Spanish conquest, these fiestas were not
celebrated in early November, but in the middle of the year.
The Spanish made them coincide with the Catholic holidays of All Saints
Day and All Soul's Day, which date to the Middle Ages, says Dr. González.
But here in Mexico Todos los Santos is secondary to the pre-Hispanic
"Even in Mixquic, which is just one big party contaminated by
commercialism, they put a clay dog on the altar-a clear reference to
pre-conquest custom of killing a dog and incinerating it with the body of
the deceased to help it on its way," said González.
In pre-Hispanic tradition the dead had to cross a river, and the dog was
needed to help the soul cross over, she explains.
The humorous aspect was absent from the celebrations of the Mexica, said
González, just as it is from festivities in many indigenous communities
"When I was little, in celebrations leading up to Muertos, there
were calaveras, little heads or skulls made of chick peas . and those sugar
skulls were continually made. The Toluca sweet fair was a classic; you had
coffins of sugar, toys related to death, dolls. But I don't think this was
really humorous. I think it is that death was seen as natural, so much so
that its image could be a toy for little kids."
In Mexico City the holiday does not have much to do with the way the
Mexica viewed death. González says the urban spectacle has become
interesting not so much for its pre-Hispanic roots, but rather because it is
now an important part of Mexico's identity, with the promotion of Día de
Muertos as a resistance to the incursion of U.S. culture, like Halloween.
"You see altars more and more in schools, offices and supermarkets.
We make an altar here at the Department of Ethnology and Social Anthropology
in San Angel, and place on it photos of our researcher colleagues who have
Apart from the relatively new practice in Mexico of dressing up children
as witches, vampires or mummies, the Catholic tradition for charity, which
made its way into Día de Muertos, is what is most likely to chime with
Inevitably Halloween has come to Mexico via the United States, where
begging has been transformed into "trick or treat." Indeed, now in
urban Mexico, you are more likely to see children touring the local square
at night with orange plastic pumpkins and asking for "mi
Hjallo-gueen," rather than "mi calaverita."
Susana Ibañez, headmaster of a kindergarten in Coyoacán, Mexico City,
has tried in vain to keep the different festivities separate.
"It's not the children, it's the parents. We ask them not to dress
them up for our Día de Muertos party, but they insist. We do teach the kids
about Halloween, but in their English class. Here in the school, the altar
is the big theme and all the children participate, bringing sugar skulls,
pan de muertos, and helping with the decorations."
Ibañez said that the element of national pride is increasing in this
fiesta. She pointed out that a supermarket was criticized a few years ago
for having too much imported Halloween paraphernalia, and in response set up
a proper altar.
While she does correct her students if they refer to the festivity as
Halloween, she does not see Halloween as a threat to native traditions.
Mexican scholars agree that Day of the Dead leans to the side of
remembrance of the dead, rather than grief for them.
Addressing the strains of revelry and macabre humor, ethnologist José
del Val says, "Death is about separating the sacred from the profane.
The sacred is a serious matter, but Muertos is also a festival. So this is a
festival in a sacred space, and this means everything is allowed without
Barbara Kastelein writes about Mexico travel and
tourism for Fodor's Travel Publications, Condé Nast Traveller (UK) and the
Sunday Express newspaper in London.