Day of the Dead: where does Mexico’s special relationship with death come from


The cult of life, if it really is deep and total, is also a cult of death. Both are inseparable. A civilization that denies death ends up denying life.”

Few phrases like this one by Octavio Paz better define the position that Mexicans maintain in the face of death and which they boast with tremendous pride every year on the Day of the Dead.

While in much of the planet this date is marked by sadness and tears, in Mexico it is surrounded by a halo of party and color, of a celebration of life and of reunion with the deceased who are believed to return to our world for a day.

And far from losing strength over the years, this particular way of celebrating the Day of the Dead is passed from generation to generation. As in the case of Gabriela Luna, a young woman from Mexico City who took up this tradition after the loss of her maternal grandmother.

“She would put up a giant altar, so when she leaves, I assume the tradition that she taught me and I dedicate the offering to her every year. For me, it is a way of not losing a custom in which I feel that those who are not, I accompany, “ she tells BBC Mundo.

Gabriela Luna
Gabriela began to place her altar of the dead every year after the death of her maternal grandmother.

“Without a doubt, it generates an identity for us Mexicans, because very at the core of this practice is our main code: the family,” says this wool modeling artist.

The covid-19 pandemic this time limits the traditional visits to cemeteries and pantheons in Mexico by family members who, every year, share their favorite food and music with those who are no longer there.

It will also prevent the classic parades where the catrina, the iconic smiling skull popularized by Diego Rivera, was its greatest symbol.

Undoubtedly, the Day of the Dead in Mexico is full of mysticism that provokes curiosity and fascination in equal parts in the rest of the world … although it also confuses those who find it difficult to understand this position of Mexicans before death.

Day of celebration, not sadness

To understand the origin of this relationship, we must go back to Mesoamerica thousands of years ago. Some of the native peoples organized parties to guide the dead on their journey to Mictlán, the underworld of Mexica mythology.

Cemetery in Mexico
Caption,The lights, colors, music and favorite food of the deceased flood the cemeteries of Mexico every year.

Others set up altars with offerings to remember the dead and skulls were placed as symbols of death and rebirth.

According to an ancient legend, Quetzalcóatl -the god in the form of a feathered serpent- went down to the underworld and deposited his semen on some ground bones to give life to the human being, so for those peoples the remains of bones symbolized in a certain way the seed of life.

Because, without a doubt, if there was a central message in these commemorations towards the dead, it was the belief that their souls end up returning to the world of the living.

So, why associate the Day of the Dead with sadness if, according to the indigenous worldview, it is precisely the day that those who left our side come to visit us?

Dead bread
Caption,Mexicans eagerly await this time of year to enjoy the traditional bread of the dead, which pretends to have bones on top.

For them, death was nothing more than a symbol of life that is represented on the altar offered to the deceased.

Thousands of years later, millions of Mexican households continue to place their altars with great affection and detail in which a multitude of symbols, food, confetti, and photos of deceased people are combined.

It is precisely this memory of those who are no longer here that allows – together with the help of the candles and the fragrant marigold flower – that the souls of the deceased find their way back home to live with the family and enjoy the food arranged on altars in his honor.

“It is a great party perhaps comparable to Christmas in Europe. It is a party because there is that memory of the dead who return. There are even legends about families who do not put an offering, and the dead come to remind them to do so”, says Andrés Medina, of the Institute of Anthropological Investigations of the UNAM.

Spanish influence

But the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico radically influenced the celebration of their Day of the Dead.

For example, they were the ones who made the feast of the dead of the natives coincide – which lasted two months – with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints ‘Day and All Souls’ Day (November 1 and 2).

Parade for the Day of the Dead in Mexico City.
Caption,Although the Day of the Dead in Mexico is currently concentrated on November 1 and 2, the traditional celebrations lasted for two months.

Today, the Mexican Day of the Dead is the result of a mixture of these two cultures, pre-Columbian and Catholic traditions.

Although judging by how different the celebrations are today in Mexico and Spain, it seems that the first culture weighed much more than the second.

For the writer and anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz, one of the reasons is that the “modernization process” of rituals about death that has occurred in Europe and part of America since the 18th century did not have the same effect in Mexico, which was already approaching at the end of its colonial period.

“Spain was already going to war in Europe and the Crown had financial problems to worry about this,” the author of “Ideas of death in Mexico,” tells BBC Mundo.

“In addition, in Mexico, the presence of the Church -especially in the 19th century, but also earlier- was less strong than in Spain, so the popular cult could flourish much more as it was less dominated by the clergy,” he adds.

A man with a large mountain of marigold flowers.
Caption,The cempasúchil flower cannot be missing from the altars of the dead in Mexico.

This stance towards the celebration continued even after the independence of Mexico.

“Even liberals like Benito Juárez, who was very anti-clerical and opposed to these rituals that they considered superstitious, ended up accepting this celebration, saying it was a national popular holiday and avoiding their association so close with the Church,” says the expert.

The unprecedented of the Mexican celebration

Some of these traditions of the cult of the dead are not, however, exclusive to Mexico: some can also be found every Day of the Dead in places in Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, or part of Central America, among others.

What makes the case of Mexico unique is how it proudly “nationalized” these customs as a symbol of the country.

Diego Rivera Mural
Caption,Although the Catrina was popularized worldwide by Diego Rivera, the origin of this character is the Calavera Garbancera, a figure created by the cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada.

“In other countries, they are folkloric customs or they can be seen as something old-fashioned. For years, the celebration of the dead was inhibited because it was considered not modern or contrary to liberal values,” says Lomnitz.

“On the other hand, in Mexico, the party grew enormously. Only here was there a cultural elaboration of this as something that reflected the national collective spirit, it is unique in this.”

And that nationalism was further exalted from a key episode in the country’s history: the Mexican Revolution.

“Apart from the tradition of the towns, came the promotion of a government with the desire to reproduce a very strong nationalist discourse,” says Medina, who celebrates that this day continues to be commemorated although he regrets that part of the population does not really know its meaning.

“On the Day of the Dead Children (November 1) there are places where groups of children go from house to house asking for their skull as an offering, a sweet. They represent those dead children who return for those days, although they may not even know it and for people they have lost that idea, “he tells BBC Mundo.

What does this reflect about Mexicans?

For Lomnitz, this vision of death reflects the close relationship of Mexicans with their deceased. “Not with death in general, but with their deceased,” he stresses.

And on the other hand, he believes that it reveals a very special macabre sensitivity and sense of humor that the country shows, for example, when it comes to using death to make political and social criticism through the texts known as “literary skulls”.

Self André Breton, the French theorist considered the father of Surrealism, described Mexico as the home of black humor for its many customs that reconcile life and death.

However, experts deny that this celebration assumes that Mexico mocks death or does not receive with sadness and pain when this moment arrives.

“The celebration of the dead does not mean that Mexicans are not afraid of death. Rather, it is a joy because the dead return. But I think there has been a misinterpretation, a superficial reading of our party,” explains Medina.

Image from the Disney Pixar film "Coco" (Photo: Disney Pixar)
Caption,The Disney Pixar movie “Coco” popularized the Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead around the world. (Photo: Disney Pixar)

This idea is also partly held in many countries where the Mexican Day of the Dead has become very popular in recent years.

Georgina Larruz, a 30-year-old Mexican studying in Russia, had to explain to her Spanish students that this celebration that they knew in large part (like millions of people in the world) thanks to the animated film “Coco” is much more than fun, songs and alcohol.

“It is a party that unites us as a community, and the fact that I put my offering here, thousands of miles from home, makes you feel that connection with your family, with your dead and, ultimately, with who you are.”, she tells BBC Mundo from Moscow.

Atar by Georgina Larruz
Caption,Georgina had to turn to Russian products to make her small altar of the dead in her student residence in Moscow.

From Mexico City, Gabriela Luna agrees on how satisfying it is to think that there is a bridge thanks to which deceased relatives return this day “honoring and accompanying us.”

“By virtue of that alone, it seems to me that we should continue to preserve those colors, which also make us Mexicans so characteristic and so unique in the world,” she says proudly.

After the celebration of this atypical Day of the Dead, another year will have to pass until the memories in the memory of the living in Mexico return to achieve the return, at least for a few hours, of the souls of their deceased.


Mexico Daily Post