The Day of the Dead in Mexico

Party with the dead

Excerpt from the article by Rafael Martinez de la Cruz and Ane Bonde Rolsted in the book ’The Life of the Dead’, published in connection to the exhibition at Moesgaard Museum.

The skulls are placed close to the edge of the table. They are all decorated with frosting in a lot of different colours and the skulls themselves are made out of sugar. Above them hang rows of skulls cut in out in brightly coloured paper. On the market street quaint merchandise are sold -all with skull, skeleton or death motifs. The sugar skulls are edible, as are the chocolate skulls and the so-called dead breads. Sugar canes are also for sale. Orange and blood red flowers. Nayeli walks between the market stalls with her family. They are shopping for a very special visit.

The Day of the Dead

The final days of October are particularly busy in most Mexican homes. The Day of the Dead is hastily approaching. It is the most important holiday of the year; the day when the dead come for a visit. What is called All Hallows’ Eve or Halloween in Denmark and many other countries – November 1 or 2 – is when the Catholic Church remember and pray for the souls of the departed as they make their way through Purgatory.

In the popular version of Catholicism in Mexico, the distance between the world of the dead and the world of the living is even smaller: The dead actually come for a visit. We, the living, cannot see them, but they are here. In many Mexican homes, this means visits from the dead, as well as the living. You decorate your home, raise an altar for the dead and invite the family for a feast. You restore the burial sites and decorate them with flowers and candles. The streets are crowded with people in costumes, and often there is heavy drinking.

The anticipation of the living is high on this day, and there is a clear notion that the same applies to the dead. Because the dead only have this one day to revisit their loved ones.

This characteristic cultural phenomenon has received a great deal of attention in the past years from tourists, museums and scientists. Where does the phenomenon come from? Why the use of crazy skeletons as the main element? Does it mean that death is nothing but a joke to the Mexicans?

Papi’s visit

Nayeli and her family are exhausted. It has been a long day, but the are not going to bed just yet. There is still a lot to do. They are raising an altar for Papi, Nayeli’s late grandfather. And if the altar is not done properly, Papi will be angry. The atmosphere is relaxed and the family enjoys tying flowers to a frame of sugar canes. The orange flowers are bright against the green wall, and their fragrance fills the air. The colour and the fragrance are leading Papi to the house.

Nayeli is a 26-year-old Mexican woman. She lives with her parents, has two siblings, a grandmother and a grandfather, Papi. Even though, Papi is dead, he is still a part of the family. They clearly remember him, and as long as there are people alive who remember him, he will return for the Day of the Dead. Since he is the most recently deceased in the family, this year’s altar is dedicated to him.

The family have grown and picked the flowers for the altar themselves. They have been to the market and every item has beencarefully assessed. Only the best is good enough when the dead visit, and everything is planned and executed according to Papi’s wishes.

But it is not only the wishes of Papi that the family must consider. There are other dead in the family and each of their burial sites must be restored. The Mexican families carry out this task themselves. Some families hold vigil in the cemetery during the night and return the dead to the land of the dead after the party. But Nayeli’s family visit the burial sites during the day. They spend two whole days working in the burning sun, but it is a great satisfaction for the family to do something good for others, for the dead.

Papi’s burial site is the last one they visit and more family members show up to help. They clean the site and decorate the burial site. And they have a good time: They eat a bit of food and sing the songs that Papi loved to sing and hear. Despite the good mood, Nayeli’s grandmother – Papi’s widow – is overcome by emotions of grief and loss, and she sits quietly with the others.

It is starting to get dark, and the wind reminds the family of death: It is cold. Even so, they stay till midnight.

Death in Mexico

The iconography of the Day of the Dead with the laughing, dancing, musical skeletons can easily give the impression that the Mexicans find death amusing. This is an image that resonates in literature and results in a stereotypical image of Mexicans as people who think death is funny. This stereotype perseveres, but make no mistake: Despite the satire and grotesque skulls, there is also a different, more emotional story, as the case of Nayeli’s grandmother shows.

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In Moesgaard Museum’s exhibition about Mexico, visitors meet Nayeli’s family at home, at the market on the town square, and at the cemetery. The book ‘The Life of the Dead’ can be purchased in the museum shop (98 DKK).

Rafael Martinez de la Cruz is an anthropologist and video photographer living in Aarhus. In 2013, he went to Oaxaca in Mexico to collect materials for Moesgaard’s exhibition ‘The Day of the Dead in Mexico’.

Ane Bonde Rolsted is exhibition coordinator and curator at Moesgaard Museum. She is the project manager of the exhibition The Day of the Dead.