Views from NAU: How Día de los Muertos celebrates the living and the dead

By Karen Schairer

Associate Professor, Department of Global Languages and Culture

In the late autumn months of October and November, as warmth and light fade from the Northern Hemisphere and life is confronted with death, the concept that barriers may be thinning between this world and the next have given rise to countless celebrations around the world.

Modern-day Halloween, with its creepy-crawlies, witches, ghouls and ghosts hearken back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. Bonfires had to be tended as protection against hungry beasts and the cold. Sweet offerings were made and children were disguised to protect them from the evil creatures that, at summer’s end, could break through the fragile boundary between the world of the living and the realm of the dead.

The Day of the Dead, on the other hand, is a joyous reunion of family. It is strongly associated with Mesoamerica but celebrated today in many parts of the world. The spirits that emerge from the land of the dead are not seen as threatening monsters to be feared, but ancestors to be lovingly guided home along paths outlined with bright, fragrant, autumn-colored marigolds, the Cempasuchtil. Once home, these spirits are welcomed by their families gathered to share memories in front of festive altars bearing their pictures, their favorite foods, beverages, tobacco and prized possessions. All this is prepared to help them once more savor the pleasures of life before returning to the world of the dead. Spirits who no longer have anyone left to remember them are destined to fade away.

The celebration of the Day of the Dead actually extends across several days. It begins on Oct. 31, the eve of All Saints’ Day, Nov. 1 on the Catholic calendar, when families visit cemeteries to commune with their loved ones as they clean and decorate their graves with flowers, candles, religious symbols and offerings of calaveras, or brightly decorated sugar skulls.  All Saints’ Day is dedicated to the pure spirits of children and the next day, Nov. 2, to the rowdy spirits of deceased adults.

Families build their Day of the Dead altar in the days prior to the grand celebration. Traditionally, each altar has at least two levels, representing the heavens and the earth. On them are placed representations of the four elements: water so the spirits can quench their thirst, wind represented by paper banners, Earth represented by food and the fire of candles to warm them and light their way. In some regions, the first candle is lit on Oct. 28 and a white flower is placed on the altar to receive solitary spirits, those who have no families to receive them. The next day, a second candle is lit beside another glass of water for forgotten spirits, and on Oct. 30, a third candle is lit beside a third glass of water and piece of bread for spirits who began their journey without having eaten. Finally, on Nov. 1, lovingly prepared plates of food are placed on the altar for the spirits of children in order to make sure they get their fair share before Nov. 2nd when the eager adult spirits converge to feast. Since spirits, being incorporeal, consume only the intangible essence of their offering, after they depart the living family is free to enjoy all the delicious, tangible foods and beverages.

Public altars, often built to honor famous figures from the past, tend to be significantly more elaborate, framed by a great arch of flowers and fruit to represent the entry into the underworld. Most have as many as seven levels: holding pictures of celestial beings, a Christian cross, incense to purify the air and ward off evil spirits, candles to guide souls needing to escape from purgatory, figurines of salt, photos of the person honored and servings of their favorite food.

Some of the most widely shared elements of the Day of the Dead are also the oldest, including the traditional Catholic celebration of All Saints Day, which was introduced by the Spaniards.  The Aztecs believed the Cempasuchtil (marigold) contained the rays of the sun god that guided spirits through the cycles of life. Real skulls used by the Aztecs to honor their dead were replaced by the Spaniards with sugar skulls—small ones for departed children and larger ones for adults, each decorated with the name of the deceased and bright symbols of life, including colored flowers, butterflies and glittering ornaments. Today, living children also receive sugar skulls with their names on them, both as a treat and to teach them not to fear death. Another essential feature of any celebration of the Day of the Dead, Pan de Muerto, bread of the dead, was originally an offering to pre-Colombian gods. It was made with amaranth, honey and human blood until the Spanish introduced wheat to the new world. An Aztec goddess of death protected and guided departed loved ones along their journey. Today, La Calaca, a generally joyous skeletal personification of death, is celebrated as a guide to the afterlife. La Catrina, an elegant dead woman dressed in European finery, appeared in the early 19th century during time of the Mexican Revolution as a reminder that death comes for all, rich and poor.

In spite of its name, the Day of the Dead is first and foremost a celebration of life, a reminder that life and death are both part of the same experience. Neither is to be feared and both are to be celebrated with joy and laughter, music and dancing and a heartfelt appreciation of family and all those who came before us.

The movie “Coco”, in both English and Spanish, offers a delightful immersion into this traditional celebration. A shorter, beautifully animated film about a little girl who visits the land of the dead can be viewed online.

NAU Communications