Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), a world-famous day of celebration in Mexico, remembers and honours those who have died. Recognised by UNESCO as an aspect of the “intangible cultural heritage” of Mexico, this concept has existed for hundreds (arguably thousands) of years. During the days of observance, streets spanning Mexico, from the sprawling Mexico City to the seaside village of Troncones, are adorned with papel picado (intricate paper folk art) and delicate sugar and chocolate skulls.
This article touches on the Indigenous Mexican origins of día de Muertos’, how Spanish culture was incorporated into the celebration, and the regional differences and similarities as are celebrated today. Please note that this post is intended to be a summary, and the interested reader should take this as a starting point for further research.
The Indigenous Origins of Día de Muertos
Ritualistic behaviours surrounding death were ingrained in the cultures of the civilisations that existed in modern-day Mexico prior to the 16th century arrival of the Spanish. These many different civilisations are often grouped together under the term “Aztecs” as they were the dominant people when the Spanish arrived.
Día de Muertos Rituals: Differences and Similarities Across Indigenous Cultures
To begin, we graze the surface of the rituals of four societies: Teotihuacan, Mexicas, Aztecs, and the Nahua. Note that a discussion exists on the equivalence of the Aztecs and the Mexica: Aztec is a term that can include the Mexica, but here, the term Mexica is used as a specific denominator and Aztec as the broader range of people.
While holistic differences in rituals and competing notions of death are highlighted, there are many similarities between the beliefs and practices of these indigenous groups.
The rituals of the inhabitants of the Teotihuacan region of modern-day Mexico (northeast of Mexico City) are most like what the reader is accustomed to.
Ofrendas (offerings) were put in place to remember and honour the dead. Intense rituals were then performed so that the subject would be able to reach their designated afterlife (one was assigned a different afterlife depending on one’s age at the time of death). While today ofrendas are composed of colourful paper and photographs, excavations have found that in Teotihuacan, ofrendas included snails, jade ornaments, shells, mirrors, and jade jewelry among other less decorative items (Borbolla, 1947). They could also include human remains or, in some cases, the remains of a Xoloitzcuintle dog to serve as a guide to the afterlife (Elson & Mowbray, 2005).
Mexica and Aztec
The Mexica and Aztec, while like the Teotihuacan, differed in that they believed the designated afterlife was dependent on the manner of death as opposed to age at the time of death. For example, if someone were to drown, they would go to Tlalocan, the land of the god of rain: Tlaloc; Omeyocan was for warriors and mothers who died during childbirth; Chichihuacuauhco, the afterlife for children; and, Mictlan for people who died natural deaths. The latter was the dreariest and made one ineligible for reincarnation, something that was possible in Omeyocan and Chichihuacuauhco.
The Nahua dedicated a sizeable portion of their calendar to venerate the dead. Three of their eighteen months were entirely dedicated to this task. These celebrations included making alters in remembrance of the dead, feasting, dancing, wearing ornate clothing, cutting a symbolic tree, the “xocotl”, and human sacrifices.
The Essence of Día de Muertos
While both the 1st and 2nd November are traditionally significant to Día de Muertos, the latter is the designated day in terms of practical observance.
People set up altars on tabletops, called ofrendas (offerings). They are adorned with papel picado (intricate paper folk art), decorated with pictures of their dead alongside objects that held special meaning to them. Food and drink, such as water, corn, pumpkins, tea and spirits, may also be placed on the ofrenda. Ofrendas are created for the enjoyment of the dead and not for the living.
Treasured Memories and the Afterlife
The degree of spirituality attached to this event varies by person, but for many, it is a time of paying respect to the dead and sharing memories as a form of respect for those one may have loved and lost to time. Sadness would be an incorrect interpretation of this time as it is more complex than that. A degree of longing is inevitable but, at its heart, this is not a day to mourn or miss but rather a day to look back on what was with happiness and the wish for the persistence of the soul after death.
Spanish Influence on Día de Muertos
Many things changed upon the arrival of the Spanish, among them the rituals surrounding death. The Spanish were adept at syncretising European and Indigenous culture. For example, the continuing reverence of the famous “Virgen de Guadalupe” in Mexico, made it easier for Indigenous Mexicans to accept Catholicism as a central tenet of their society.
Exponential Increase in Deaths
With the arrival of the Spanish came the arrival of many diseases the Indigenous people of Mexico simply had no immunological defenses against. This led to the sudden death of a great percentage of the pre-Hispanic population. As such, death rituals and methods of burial had to quickly adapt as the demand increased exponentially (Méndez, 2022) and a move away from rituals and gods, towards an oral tradition followed. It is here that Día de Muertos altars, as we know them today, are thought to have originated.
Day of the Dead Sacrifices and Graveyards
Moreover, the Spanish promoted the idea that the dead should be placed in “camposantos” (graveyards – although the literal translation is holy fields) where one could be closer to God as opposed to the family (again promoting the move towards monotheism).
It must also be mentioned that the arrival of the Spanish shifted culture away from human sacrifices both directly and indirectly.
Pan de Muerto, Bread of the Dead
An aspect of Día de Muertos which is prevalent throughout Mexico is the consumption of pan de muerto (bread of the dead), a sweet bread to be placed on ofrendas and to be eaten by the living.
Pan de muerto symbolizes the bones of the deceased and tears for the living. The bread’s circular shape represents the circle of life.
This bread arose from the amalgamation of Spanish and Indigenous cultures as it was the Europeans who introduced baking culture (Méndez, 2022). A similar food can be found in Europe under the term “pan de animas”.
A Modern Mexican Celebration
There are, of course, new elements which have been added in modern celebrations. It is now quite common to purchase fake skulls made of sugar and chocolate, something which is hard to picture as taking place in antiquity.
James Bond and Mexico City’s Day of the Dead Parade
More recently, a parade takes place in Mexico City to celebrate Día de Muertos. It is interesting to note that the parade depicted as taking place in Mexico City in the James Bond film “Spectre” did not actually exist prior to the film’s release. In fact, it was the film that inspired Mexican authorities to create the parade. This is a delightful example of the willingness of Mexican culture to adapt and evolve with the progression of time, incorporating elements that improve their rituals.
Día de Muertos: 31st October and Other Regional Variations
While a few key elements of the current Día de Muertos celebrations are mentioned above, there is once again a vast variation of rituals between regions.
For example, in the state of Mexico, observance begins on 31st October when people visit graveyards to clean and adorn the graves of infants and children. In the state of Tlaxcala, on the other hand, observance begins on 28th October and people are remembered not by age but rather by the way they died (accidents, death before baptism etc.).
These modern regional variations follow the pattern of variations of the pre-16th century civilisations. The people in the state of Mexico believe what the people of Teotihuacan did (same region) in terms of divisions of observance of classes of the afterlife (age not manner of death), while the people of Tlaxcala observe based on manner of death as the Aztecs did (same region).
Other notable variations are seen in the state of Chiapas where a day (the 1st November) is dedicated to “calling” their ancestors to enjoy the celebration and the following day is when the dead return to the afterlife.
Finally, Michoacan has a more somber rite in which women sometimes sit around religious symbols and pray, with the intention of calling the deceased to the ceremony.
Day of the Dead across Latin America
It must also be mentioned that variations of Día de Muertos not only exist within Mexico but also throughout much of Latin America. Specifically in countries like Guatemala, Belize, and Bolivia.
The Continuous Evolution of Culture
This article presents the reader with a brief glimpse into the history of Día de Muertos, as well as modern-day interpretations of the religious festivity. It was the Indigenous people of Mexico who placed immense importance on life after death in ritualistic forms. And the Spanish, who edited these rituals into today’s more symbolic observances. Although the core of the festivity is veneration of the dead, facets of it are still evolving to this day.
The continuous evolution of Día de Muertos is a great reminder of the universality of a very human concept – life after death. The fact that people today can find comfort in the rituals created over 400 years ago shows that while the question of life after death might forever remain unanswerable, we humans universally find solace in memories that live on in our minds and in the stories we share.