El Día de los Muertos may seem a pretty morbid holiday to the casual outside observer.
In the Latin American countries where this holiday is celebrated, the people pile sweets and food before photos of their loved ones who have passed away, and place innumerable candles amid oceans of candy skulls, reviving the realm of the dead in the light of the dancing flames. Life-size skeleton puppets march through the streets in fantastical parades, and faces painted in lurid colors swim through the crowds gathered to celebrate the Day of the Dead.
Why such color? How did such lively rituals come to be associated with a holiday declared in Death’s honor?
View the slideshow for a look at el Día de los Muertos through the customs associated with this November holiday — and read on to discover their meaning.
El Día de los Muertos was born among the ancient indigenous peoples of Central America nearly 3000 years ago. In response to the ubiquity of death in centuries past, Latin American cultures developed an embracing attitude towards mortality. Rather than keep it at arm’s length out of fear, these cultures came to regard death as a mere moment on the continuum of the soul’s immortal life. Thus, remembering loved ones who have passed on is not accomplished with undue gravity or grimness, but with convivial gatherings and colorful expressions of love through altars laden with offerings of food, flowers, and candy.
I had the opportunity to explore the meaning of this cultural occasion at the opening of the National Museum of Mexican Art‘s Día de los Muertos exhibition. Wending my way through the gallery with a cup of Mexican hot chocolate (delicious stuff) in hand, I took in the sight of skeleton sculptures and decorated altars erected in honor of the dead from a sea of murmuring, chattering life. The creative displays delighted the eye and provoked plenty of discussion, but it was an Octavio Paz quote stenciled onto the wall that really got me thinking.
“The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it, it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.”
I’ll accede that Western cultures might well emulate Latin American countries and nurture a healthier relationship with death, one that does not shy away from its inevitability or regard it as too final a termination point. But consider the shift in the breed of mortality we must reconcile ourselves to in today’s world, compared to earlier times. At least in developed nations, modern healthcare can prolong life in the event of certain illnesses which previously constituted a death sentence. The utterance of the dreaded “C word” (cancer) no longer means “get your affairs in order,” and debilitating diabetes and life-threatening heart disease can now be effectively managed or even reversed. But even if these afflictions don’t spell the end of life, they nevertheless threaten us with it, arguably causing us more fear than when life-and-death was more black-and-white…
To me, this only serves to underscore the value of adopting Latin America’s view of death. For the next two days, sorrow and fear will shrink into the shadows as Día de los Muertos celebrants light up their homes with reverence and gather their families and friends over festive tables and photographs, in remembrance of those whose spirits will not be forgotten.