Most people view death as the end of life, natives view it as the continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, indigenous cultures embrace it. To the Aztecs, life was a dream and only in death did they awake. Dias De Los Muertos or The Day of the Dead, is actually an important and honorable holiday in Mexico and in certain parts of the United States and Central America. The holiday is a celebration that observes and honors the lives of deceased family members and loved ones.
Scholars trace the origins of the modern Mexican holiday to indigenous observances dating back hundreds of years and to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl. The goddess, known as “Lady of the Dead,” was believed to have died at birth. The holiday has spread throughout the world: In Brazil, Dia de Finados is a public holiday that many Brazilians celebrate by visiting cemeteries and churches. It is noted in Wikipedia that in Spain there are also festivals and parades that end in gatherings in cemeteries of loved ones. Similar observations of death appear in Asian and African cultures.
Today the traditional observation has been merged with Catholic theology similiar to other fringe religions, fundamentally indigenous, veiled behind Catholic iconography. After the Aztecs were conquered by Spain and Catholicism became the dominant religion, the customs became intertwined with the Christian commemoration of All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) and All Soul’s Day (Nov. 2). The celebration traditionally starts at midnight the night of October 31st, which continues until November 2nd.
Lake Pátzcuaro, Michoacan and the surrounding lake area, have one of the best-known Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico. In the main plaza of Pátzcuaro there is a major crafts competitions each year. Day of the Dead is celebrated very intensely in the towns and villages around the lake. Preparations include major cleaning and repair of the local cemeteries and the creation of flowered arches for gates of the atriums of local churches. In the early morning of the first of November, a wake for “the little angels” (velación de la angelitos), is held to honor the children who have died during the previous years.
A parallel event in Pátzcuaro and other towns in Michoacán is the Festival Cultural de la Muerte. The festival is an exhibition of paintings, photographs, film, dance, crafts and altars. Tournaments of Skulls or Torneos De Calavaeras are popular satirical poetry contests that take place. The poems all deal with themes of death and/or black humor. Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations kept skulls as trophies and displayed them during the traditional ritual.
José Guadalupe Posada (1851 – 1913), created a famous print of a figure he called La Calavera Catrina, “The Elegant Skull”, as a parody of a Mexican upper-class female meant to satirize the life of the upper classes during the reign of Porfirio Díaz. Most of his imagery was meant to make a religious or satirical point. Since his death, Posada’s costumed calaveras, have become the blue print of the style and iconography associated with the Day of the Dead – one that can take on a fierce or humorous tone.
There are a handful of reasons as to why I love my Mexican roots, death is one of them. My mother often starts a sentence off with, “When I die,” as did my grandmother. My mom has even put in her funeral song requests however, Day of Dead was never instilled, as much as it was intuitive. My mother and my grandmother never had altars but I always have.
The fun aspect of The Day of the Dead was introduced to me through music. The goth and hardcore scenes have always embraced the symbol of the skull. In the nineties, I was hired by Sony Music to design a Dead of the Dead themed album release party for Cypress Hill at The Bank in New York City. It was an incredibly stylized event and a blast.
With one final day left of the annual celebration, don’t forget your ancestors and loved ones. Take a moment to light a candle in gratitude and embrace the other side.