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Death In History
Fact | Tradition | Fiction | History | Funerals

Día de los Muertos / Day of the Dead

A three thousand year old ritual, Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico and some portions of the lower United States. The holiday is also celebrated in Brazil and the Philippines. It has its roots in Aztec and Mesoamerican tradition. 

The Spaniards believed that death was the end of life, but the natives believed that death was the end of the dream that was life and so in death we become fully awake.  The skull held all because in our heads we hold our dreams, our wisdom and our faith. The Spaniards tried to eliminate the ritual / holiday and considered it very pagan and sacrilegious. To “Christianize” the holiday, the Spaniards moved it to coincide with All Saints and Souls Day (1st and 2nd of Nov.) 

Much like the belief that the dead walk at Halloween, the faithful of Dia de los Muertos also believe it is a time when the living and the dead have the opportunity to touch, to be together.  Home altars are set with skulls, dioramas are made and pictures colored.  Skeletons adorn home altars and people visit cemeteries with bottles of good Tequila for the adult dead and toys for the young dead. The graves are decorated with flowers and foods and little wax skulls.  Often an item that was once meaningful to the deceased is added to the decoration.

Lady Muertos, Madame Death - Queen of the Dead 

Different towns and villages celebrate the holiday in different ways.  Some exchange small candles inscribed with the name of the dead.  Others play dancing games and other types of festival-like activities around the graves of the dead loved one.  Still others gather foodstuffs and drink for those coming to visit from the other side.  The skulls are often of spun sugar and there are poems written called in English “skulls” parodying the tombstone of the dead. 

The idea of a festival to honor the dead is not restricted to Mexico.  There are Dia de los Muertos type celebrations all over the world.  Halloween is very close in sentiment.  Those who observe Samhain as a pagan holiday often set an extra place at the table and decorate altars for the dead. 

Humans, by their nature, tend to “look back”… to remember.  Honoring our ancestors, observing respect for dead loved ones; this is all part of the human experience of time and the passing of it.  The celebration of Dia de los Muertos expresses the bittersweet emotion of mourning combined with a celebration of life beyond death.


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