The Day of the Dead

The Day of the Dead, as observed presently, had its origins with the indigenous people of the American continent. It is a religious holiday. A time to remember and honor the departed with joyous celebrations rather than the somber sadness usually associated with death. Although the celebrations include a mourning ritual called 'El Duelo" (The Weeping), the atmosphere is one of happiness. It is the belief that on these days the dead join theft families and loved ones, and that is cause for celebration. From Mexico to Ecuador, indigenous people held celebrations in remembrance of the departed in various forms. However, in most instances, as was the custom of the "Mexicas' (inhabitants of what is now Mexico City), offerings were made which consisted of food and other supplies that would help the departed make their afterdeath journey through the nine underground passages. The successful passage through these undergrounds led to their final resting place. There were three such places; the least desirable of which was "Mictlan". According to the "Mexicas" value system their afterdeath existence was predetermined by those acts performed while alive that were pleasing or otherwise to their gods. Present day celebrations occur during November 1 and 2. These dates coincide with the Catholic World celebrations of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, respectively. This coincidence in dates stems from the Catholic Church's efforts to find similarities between the indigenous and christian beliefs that would aid the Church in converting them to Christianity. The multiple deities of the "Mexicas" and other indigenous people and the multiple saints of the Catholic faith certainly have this commonality. This tradition is observed in urban and rural areas, however, more so by the rural poor population. The urban middle to upper class might have a simple home offering, or even scoff at the tradition. The rural and poor classes have elaborate altars and offerings to the dead. Simple offerings in homes, offices and graves are done with a flower arrangement of "cempazuchitl", the Nabuafi language name for marigolds, and candles. Elaborate offerings combined plates of tamales, a pie made of corn with varied fillings; beverages, usually the favorite of the deceased including chocolate, tequ'fia or mezcal; an assortment of flowers; candles; bowls of local fruits such as chayotes, limes, and avocadoes; and "pan de muerto", rounded loaves of bread, sometimes human shaped topped with a design of crossed bones. Marzipan skulls, bread shaped like a skull, surrounding the picture of the deceased complements the offering. The graves are adorned with flower arrangements and the area is covered with "cempazuchifl" petals. Candles and copal incense are burned. The candle light along with the penetrating fragrance of the incense help the returning souls find their way back. People gather at these cemeteries and play music from homemade drums and flutes. Street vendors sell a variety of fruits and delicacies which have become a part of the folklore, the ritual and the celebration. They include: Pan de Muerto, amaranth seed skulls with raisin eyes and peanut teeth, candied Marzipan skulls, roasted corn cobs, and punch with chunks of fruit and rind. As the "Mexicas" belief of dying a "flowery" death or the Christian one of dying "under the grace of God", the souls rest in peace in heaven, "Mictlan" or with the gods. The offerings of drink, the food with its wonderful aroma, the burning copal incense with its penetrating fragrance, the guiding light from the candles, and the drum and flute music are all enticements to the departed to join the living in the celebrations of, not death, but the continuum of life.