By: Luis Chacon
Province Coordinator for Volunteers
The Day of the Dead is rooted in the culture of pre-Hispanic Mexico. The altar of the dead has a strong link with the traditional agricultural cycle in which the indigenous people celebrated the corn harvest. In this celebration, the deceased came from the Mictlan (land of the dead) to share with their families the produce of the earth. In the world view of these people death was not a definitive end but a step to perfection which included a certain transformation.
The conquerors from Spain discovered that the day on which the natives celebrated their dead coincided very closely with the feast of All Saints. An attempt was made to merge “the day of the dead” and the Catholic tradition of All Saints’ Day.
Mexican culture is heir to two strong ritualistic traditions concentrating on dates and symbols. Both Spanish and pre-Hispanic Mexican culture contributed to the symbolism on the Dia de Los Muertos.
Mexican culture has always been fascinated with death. Mexican history reflects extreme situations during which people found themselves on the brink of death, whether due to war, hunger, lack of physical resources, or diseases to name a few. Having long-life expectancy was an illusion. Homeschooling revolved around the possibility of family disruption due to death. Parents taught their children to fend for themselves from a very young age, in the eventuality that their parents would face an early death.
Octavio Paz affirms that the poverty in Mexican society can be measured in the family celebrations. The rich had no time for parties because they had to be productive. Parties compensated for the achievements which were not possible for poorer Mexicans. Parties provided an opportunity for social enjoyment based on relationships rather than achievements.
With time several new traditions concerning death have emerged in Mexico. One of them is the cult of La Santa Muerte. This cult is very different from the traditional of the “Day of the Dead” and the feast of All Saints.
The veneration of Santa Muerte is a cultural religious expression created recently, around 2001. Centered in Tepito, Mexico City, Santa Muerte’s spokesperson is Enriqueta Romero. It seems to have its origin in a mixture of Aztec, Mixtec, and Mayan cultures with some elements copied from the Catholic tradition of venerating saints.
A number of practices surround this neo-tradition. Firstly the figure of a skeleton fully dressed in some color–black, red, blue, green depending on the favor requested—is placed in an important part of the house. Secondly, lighted candles and incense are prevalent. Thirdly, an altar adorned with flowers, fruit, alcoholic beverages, sweets, and money is erected, and favors or miracles are requested through notes placed on this altar.
The Catholic Church does not recognize the veneration of Santa Muerte. Death is a cessation of biological life and a step to eternal life; death is an experience not a person. The cult of “Santa Muerte” appears to personify death. In the Catholic Church there is the devotion to St. Joseph as the patron of a “Happy Death.” This devotion asks Saint Joseph to intercede for us that we have the opportunity to die in God’s grace, with our conscience clear and surrounded by the people we love. It certainly has no resemblance to the cult of Santa Muerte that began in Tepito.
Death for the Christian is the step into eternity. Death is the end of biological life and the beginning of eternal life. The Dia de los Muertos helps us in a pedagogical way not only to prepare for our own death but also to live our life to the fullest. There is an adage which states, “Whoever forgets death also forgets life.”
The Day of the Dead is a perfect opportunity to remember those we love, because love transcends death itself. The memory of those whom we loved in life provides an entrance to an intimacy with those persons in an unprecedented form of communion. The Day of the Dead helps us value the lives of the ones we loved as works of art, as symphonies appreciated after the final note has played.
The Day of the Dead puts us in tune with life itself. Knowing that we are finite and that one day our mortal life ends invites us to reflect on the way we live today. Hopefully we are playing a tune reflecting the best version of ourselves before harmonizing the last final note of our existence.
To think about death for a Christian, is to think about the life one lives today. It is to enjoy the minutes, the hours, the days, in order to respond as Saint Dominic Savio did when his friends at the Oratory asked him, “What would you do if you knew that the moment of your death was a few hours away?” Dominic Savio answered. “I would continue doing exactly the same thing that I am doing right now”.