Dia de Muertos, a celebration of loved ones now gone

Nov. 1 – 2, the two days of the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead, are set aside to remember 

By Tina SnellStaff Writer

Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a Latin American, mainly Mexican, ritual held annually to celebrate loved ones who have passed away. It is always celebrated Nov. 1 – 2 and is therefore thought of along the same lines as Halloween in the United States. But, the ritual is far from it. Even though the depictions of skulls and skeletons are prevalent, it has nothing to do with scaring people or children.

Home altars are set up to honor family members or friends who have passed away. From Nov. 1 – 2, people, even strangers, visit these altars, usually bringing a candle as a gift.

When the Caribbean Indian religions were forcibly mixed with the Catholic religion centuries ago, many of the rituals, traditions and aspects overlapped. The Aztecs had a god of the dead and its celebrations were around the same time as All Saints Day, Nov. 1. It wasn’t much of a stretch of the imagination to equate the human sacrifices of the Aztecs with the sacrifice of Jesus.

Mexico today has a unique combination of the Catholic Church and Aztec traditions.

“Our culture doesn’t have a way to honor our dead,” said Central Lakes College Spanish and Latin American studies teacher Jan Kurtz. “I learned about Dia de Muertos when I began my study of Spanish. Since I was a widow at age 25, and lost my brother five years later, the Day of the Dead has helped me to process my grieving.”

The Latin American ritual begins weeks before Nov. 1. Bread is baked and candies are made. An altar is set up with many of the deceased’s favorite items. Each is a reminder of the person’s life and a conversation starter when friends and family come to visit. Stories are told, people laugh and cry and everyone is able to process their grief.

Thousands of sugar skulls are made for the two-day celebration known as Dia de Muertos in Mexico. Small ones are for the children who have died and are put out Nov. 1, when their souls have been allowed to return to earth. Larger ones are displayed Nov. 2, when the adults who have died return to help celebrate.

“The Mexicans believe there are two deaths,” Kurtz said. “The first is when a person physically dies. A worse death is when their name is no longer uttered.”

“In our culture it seems as if when a death is brought up after several months, it seems to get tedious. People are expected to move on with their lives and get over a loss,” she said. “People don’t know how to react to someone still grieving after the death of a loved one, and certainly don’t want to talk about it.”

Kurtz said that it is not that way in the Mexican culture.

The altar dedicated to a loved one is up for several weeks and takes much preparation, which can be expensive for those with little money. On that altar can be copal incense, photos and the deceased’s favorite foods and drinks. A Coca Cola, which may cost the equivalent of $1 in American dollars, is a lot to those who only make $4 a day.

Also on the altar may be water to quench the thirst of the soul after a long journey, salt to preserve the body and candles (ceras) to produce a guiding light. The incense sends prayers to the gods, flowers, especially marigolds, show the deceased a path home, and el izcuintle, in toy form of a dog for the children, is a guide for the dead. The bread depicts the body of Christ, sugar skulls are a reminder that death is always present and liquor reminds people of the good times. The deceased’s favorite foods are set out for when their souls return during Dia de Muertes.

During the Dia de Muertos in Mexico people paint death masks or their faces to represent death and parade through the streets.

Sugar skulls are made by the thousands by local confectioneries. Their function is to adorn the altars and tombs, a delight for visiting souls. The miniature skulls are for children who have died. They are displayed on the altar Nov. 1. The small skulls are replaced by full-sized ones Nov. 2, for the returning adult spirits.

Special candy and toys are made for the children celebrating Dias de Muertos. Death is not feared, but laughed at in Mexico, said Kurtz.

The Mexican people believe the gates of heaven open at midnight Oct. 31, and the spirits of all deceased children (angelitos) reunite with their families for 24 hours. On Nov. 2, the spirits of the adults come down to enjoy the festivities that are prepared for them.

“In the evening of Nov. 1, everyone goes to the cemetery,” said Kurtz. “There, the cemetery is cleaned, stories are told and the deceased are remembered.”

Another ritual during Dias de Muertos is face painting or creating death masks. They may be elaborate or plain, yet all resemble a skull. While it can mean many things, in the Aztec culture, death was a positive step forward into a higher level of conscience. It’s a positive symbol of rebirth.

Catrinas, representing death, are part of the landscape during the Dia de Muertos. The skeletons are made from clay or paper maché and are usually gaudily dressed. This one is adorned with corn husks, representing the Mayan creation story.

Catrinas, skeletons of an upper class woman, usually gaudily dressed, abound during the two-day celebration. Sometimes people dress up as catrinas, but mostly they are made from clay or paper maché. The doll is the equivalent of the grim reaper and represents death with party and dance.

“Dia de Muertos is a comforting cultural celebration,” said Kurtz. “When people learn about another culture, they are able to look at their own with new eyes and better understanding.”