Día de los Muertos – A Day for Living

Posted on October 30, 2007. Filed under: Culture, Musings, Spirituality |

There are several religious and secular holidays at this time of year: All Souls Day, Hallow’een, All Saints Day, Día de Los Muertos.

I shall focus on the latter, as many Día celebrations take place nearby. I live in the beautiful Sonoran desert, which encompasses parts of California, Baja California, Arizona, and Sonora, Mexico. Although I am a United States citizen and resident, I also like think of myself as a “Sonoran” as this desert spreads itself across four states in two countries, and does not recognize human-made borders. There are a lot of border issues in US/Mexico news these days, and living in the region, I would hear about them constantly if I listened to the news, which I mostly don’t.

The celebration of Día brings us closer together at this time of year. It sometimes seems a bit ghoulish and strange to those from a western-European background. I hope to show its positive aspects!

“More than 500 years ago, when the Spanish Conquistadors landed in what is now Mexico, they encountered natives practicing a ritual that seemed to mock death. It was a ritual the indigenous people had been practicing at least 3,000 years. A ritual the Spaniards would try unsuccessfully to eradicate. A ritual known today as Día de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.”

With these words, Carlos Miller begins to describe how the rituals of parading with skulls can be seen to celebrate life. The rituals are meant to honor the dead. Many religious practices have a special day to honor those family members who have passed on, such as within Yom Kippur in the Jewish tradition, and All Saints’ or All Soul’s day in the Christian. In fact, the Spanish conquistadors attempted to blend the old Aztec practices with Christian tradition, and moved the holiday to coinside with All Saints’.

This holiday also celebrates our own mortality. By tending to the graves of our departed, and telling stories, marching in processions, and preparing and eating special sweet cakes, participants acknowledge that physical life is short, but that we are always connected to the next life and the spirits who come back from there to interact with us. It is a time of reflection on our place in life, and as such reminds us to care deeply about the impact we have on the earth and each other.

What is the difference between Halloween and the Day of the Dead? Halloween is based on a medieval European concept of death, and is populated by demons, witches (usually women) and other images of terror — all of them negative. The Day of the Dead, in contrast, is distinctly different. It is a uniquely Indo-Hispanic custom that demonstrates a strong sense of love and respect for one’s ancestors; celebrates the continuance of life, family relationships, community solidarity and even finds humor after death — all positive concepts! — Bobbi Salinas-Norman

While I would take issue with Salinas-Norman that “all” images of Hallow’een are “negative”, I think the author makes a statement about death not needing to be either scary or final. Greetings on this Day for Living; día feliz.

A good illustrated article on the history and practice of Día is here: http://www.public.iastate.edu/~rjsalvad/scmfaq/muertos.html

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9 Responses to “Día de los Muertos – A Day for Living”

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hey muse!
i have to admit that i don’t know much about the festival. but i did watch some tv documentaries before and i rather liked it! it’s a unique concept!

do you ever wonder why ancient cultures “celebrate” death, while modern cultures celebrate life?

I didn’t even realize it was the day of the dead. Thanks for your post. It’s amazing when we stop to learn about a culture and why they have rituals. Happy day of the dead!

Thanks for this very interesting post..True! When we celebrate death it is cause we believe that death is a continuity and not the end of life..


Netty Gritty; spiritualtravelman; Colourful Vision,

Thank you all for reading these words and thinking they were interesting. I do like to know about cultures near where I’m living–I think it’s only fair. Some of us in the West have a fear of death. We’ve either sanitized it and locked it away in hospitals, or over-dramatized it with our television shows and movies. I just look at it as part of a cycle, and while I mourn at the time, and deeply miss those who have gone on, I see it more and more as they’ve gone on a long vacation, and I wish for them all the best. It seems that indigenous cultures have a more natural attitude to all this, and I enjoy how the Día celebrations have changed to incorporate other traditions and regions.

I knew some things about the Day of the Dead but I’m another who found your post very informative, Muse. Thanks! 🙂 It sounds like a fascinating holiday to observe and be part of; I’ve seen some of the sugar skulls before and the masks (calacas?), but I never quite got that it was more of a celebratory festival than others are. It’s a wonderful message that death can be something you accept without fear, honoring a deceased life while knowing that death isn’t necessarily the end.

I think that’s one of the concepts I find difficult to understand about some religions. I admire the tenets of Christianity and the idea of eternal life and forgiveness, but so many people still seem afraid of death. I think it’s pointless being afraid of death because it’s an unavoidable part of life; that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be sad and mourn but in accepting it and valuing life, death doesn’t hold the same power, whether you believe in an afterlife or not. And maybe we’d value life more then as well. Just my 2 cents. 😉

Yes, cj, it’s amazing to have those skulls and drums and things paraded right by one. You are right, death is unavoidable–no one’s getting out of here alive! I think part of our pretense rests with the medical profession. While they do wonderful work, they act as if a patient’s death is a failure! I wouldn’t want to be in that line of work if I felt that way. I would have a 100% failure rate, eventually! I think the hospice movement is bringing more kindness, compassion, and support for the transitioning journey these days–both for the patients and their families and friends.

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