Mexico has a curious relationship with death. While other cultures tend to view death with sadness, uncertainty, and even fear, in Mexican culture death is considered part of the cycle of life: inevitable and a little sad for those left behind, but not negative or to be feared. For Mexicans, the grieving process tends to include celebration and joyful memories of the person’s life. Around this time of year, November 1 and 2, annual Day of the Dead festivities are held; of course, the dead are invited to join the living for a while.
The Day of the Dead tradition has survived since pre-Hispanic times, overcoming historical and cultural challenges such as the Spanish conquest or the growing popularity of Halloween. It is so important, in fact, that UNESCO declared the Day of the Dead “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” on November 7, 2003.
This festivity dates from pre-Hispanic times. In the Mexica, or Aztec, calendar, this celebration was held during the ninth month of the solar calendar, usually at the beginning of August. This coincides with harvest season, a symbol of death and rebirth.
The Aztec divinities associated to this celebration were owners of the Mictlán (from náhuatl “mictl”, dead + “tlan” place), the final resting place of the souls of those who died of natural causes. Mictlantecuhtli (“Mictlán” + “tecuhtli”, lord of) was the god of death and shadows, while Chalmecacíhuatl (“chalia”, to cut + “mecatl”, rope + “cihuatl”, lady) cut the cord, both the umbilical cord at birth and the “thread of life” that was cut when a person dies.
Other deities were responsible for certain people, depending how they died. Huitzilopochtli would take warriors and women who had died in childbirth to the Omeyocan (“sun paradise”). Tlaloc would take those who drowned to the Tlalocan (“water paradise”). Stillborn babies and infants would go to the Chichihuacuauhco, where the trees would ooze milk to feed them.
In the year 835, the Catholic Church started celebrating All Saint’s Day on November 1, celebrating anyone who had achieved sainthood, whether they were well known (like Saint Patrick or Saint Peter) or unknown. By celebrating the life and death of the saints, the Catholic values they lived and died for –such as devotion and sacrifice- were remembered and reinforced. When the Spaniards and evangelization arrived, both traditions mixed. The pre-Hispanic tradition of altars with offerings of food, drink, and objects that belonged to the departed was kept, as was the flower of the dead, cempasúchil (“cempoali”, many + “xóchitl”, flower); candles also appeared, dedicated to various saints, as well as Catholic symbols such as the cross. The “bones” in “pan de muerto” (literally “bread of the dead”, sometimes known as “soul cakes”) traditionally form a cross and were often exchanged for prayers or blessings.
During the 19th century and at the start of the 20th century, certain traditions formed around one of the universal symbols for death: the human skull, or “calavera”. Apart from using sugar skulls to decorate altars, people write “calaveritas”, which are mocking epitaphs written in verse used to ease grief by remembering the departed person’s funny moments or characteristics, often telling a tale of how they tried to get away from a clumsy, clueless Death that eventually takes their soul. The first “calaveritas” were published in 1879, in El Socialista, a newspaper from Guadalajara. A few years later, the poems were joined by the image of the “Catrina”, created by Mexican cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada in 1910.
The tradition of “pedir calaverita” (lit: “asking for a little skull”) also became popular. It comes from pre-Hispanic times; legend says that a Mexica boy had nothing to offer to his ancestors, so he went around asking for fruit and bread for his altar, showing a skull as proof that the food was for the departed and not for him. During the Colonial period, the skull was substituted for a hollow pumpkin and, following the European tradition, children would ask for food in exchange for prayers for those in Purgatory. This practice is very similar to Halloween’s “trick or treat”, and both have similar origins; however, the Halloween tradition threatens with bad behavior if no candy is received (usually a harmless prank such as throwing toilet paper over the roof of the house), which does not happen when asking for a “calaverita”. Both traditions have now merged, so it is common to see children going out both days, chanting “trick or treat!” one day and “can I have something for my little skull?” the next.
Nowadays, the full celebration begins on October 28 and continues until November 3 in places such as Tlaxcala and Aguascalientes. Different types of death are commemorated, and the dates may vary from region to region: the forgotten on October 28 and 29, those who died in an accident on October 30, family ancestors on October 31, children on November 1, adults on November 2, and on November 3 the altar is removed and the dead are sent away until the following year.
Apart from all these traditions, Mexico has many euphemisms to refer to someone’s death. Some of the more respectful ones are “go before their time”, “rest in peace” or “go to a better place”. Others are considered more casual, even tasteless, such as “petatearse” (lit: to stay on the mat; refers to a “petate”, a straw mat that sometimes doubled as a shroud or mortise), “chupar faros” (lit: to suck on a cigarette; this comes from the Mexican Revolution where those facing a firing squad) were given a last cigarette to smoke or ‘suck on’, with Faros being a popular brand of cigarette), “estirar la pata” (kick the bucket, which refers to rigor mortis), or –one of the more modern ones- “colgar los tenis” (lit: to hang up their sneakers; a reference to how it is still traditional to bury the dead without shoes).
Some also say that a person was taken by “The Thin One”, “The Bony One” or, in some cases, “La Llorona” (lit: the Crying Woman). This legendary figure appears in one of the most popular Mexican folk songs. This melancholic song was written during the Mexican Revolution. The author remains unknown to this day, but it is known that the song comes from the Tehuantepec Isthmus in Oaxaca. And while we often become nostalgic when we hear it, there is no Mexican who doesn’t sing the famous “¡ay de mí, Llorona, Llorona!” (lit: woe is me, Crying One!) and lovingly remembers those who are gone, but remain with us in spirit.