© Joan Lansberry, September 2002

The Day of the Dead: Día de los Muertos
By Julia Lansberry, with Joan Lansberry

November 2, 2003

Death remains a subject more taboo than sex for many in American society. We use polite euphemisms such as 'passed away' or even crude slang such as 'kicked the bucket' to speak of someone who has died. But it isn't that way in all cultures. In particular, our neighbors down south have a vastly different view. To paraphrase author Octavio Paz: undaunted by death, the Mexican has no qualms about getting up close and personal with Death. He chases after it, mocks it, courts it, hugs it, and sleeps with it. It is his favorite plaything and most lasting love!

In such a spirit let us consider that splendid and traditional Mexican festival, Día de los Muertos. But they are not the sole people to have such a time set aside, for this festival has its origins and parallels through the world and across the centuries. The supreme irony is that the Spanish Catholic padres "reformed" what was once an ancient Aztec summer festival under the Christian rubric of All Saints and All Souls Days, which were themselves Christianized forms of the Celtic Samhain, commonly Hallowe'en, of Irish roots. To the Irish, Samhain occurs at the beginning of their yearly calendar cycle in fall, when the barrier between the world of the departed and the world of the living becomes only a thin veil of transparency and more easily traversed.

Some complaint is voiced at evidences of cultural contamination from North American-style observances of Hallowe'en and all the more effort is made to preserve the Mexican character of Día de los Muertos. They are not so distant in origin after all, yet there is much wisdom in the spirit of the Mexican observance and a great warmth and beauty to appreciate and take into heart for contemplation. The festival proper begins on the eve of All Saints Day (October 31st) and continues through All Souls Day (November 2nd).

There are many local variations in the observance. But common to most observances are the colorful adornments, and family gravesite reunions featuring ornate altars filled with offerings of food and drink favored by the departed loved-ones. Quite often the markers at the gravesites feature niches for treasured items to be sheltered, some even gated and locked. The first day honors the angelitos, spirits of those passing in infancy or childhood. The second day honors the adults. For an offering, the Mariachis will sing favorite songs of those passed on, and it may feel almost like another birthday commemoration for those remembered, as if they were truly present again among the living. Cakes and candies are formed in shapes of skulls, coffins, and bones. It has many aspects of a party, even sometimes including fireworks. If there are no fiery blooms up high into the night sky, there is at least fragrant incense and certainly the glow of many votive candles.

One of the party attendants will be La Calaca or La Catrina, Lady Death herself, skeletal, yet attired in fashionable party dress! She will be seen among wreaths and crosses and golden marigolds. Not just marigolds, though they predominate, all sorts of flowers abound, accented with many colorful tissue-paper cutouts. It is not all loud laughter and music, for a time of cathartic weeping is reserved in some places for 2 p.m. on the first of November, but this gets any tears out of the way before the night time celebration begins. It is after all a festival.

Common to both the Irish holy day and the Mexican holy days is the belief in contacting the spirits of the deceased. In particular, Janitzio Island and Mixquic are noted for all-night candlelight vigils. At Midnight the spirits are summoned by the ringing bells for a short visit home again.

There are a few areas in Mexico which have retained more of the original Aztec elements of Día de los Muertos. Michoacan state has distinctive observances by the Purepecha people, who guarded their cultural independence under Aztec hegemony, centuries before the Spaniards arrived.

Oaxaca is another region where the Day of the Dead has noteworthy character, perhaps carrying something more from the original Aztec festivals of Miccail-huitontli and Miccail-huitl. The Aztecs glorified death as a nation of warriors. Death in battle, in childbirth, or even as a sacrificial victim bestowed high honors. The journey to Mictlan, the realm of the dead, was likened to a perilous river crossing. Perhaps the analogy holds in a way for those seeking to cross the Colorado on rafts, for the journey may well take one away from the world of the living.

I noted above that the original festival took place in summer, and this season is similarly favored across cultures and across the ages. A parallel festival of ancient Egypt fell in July/August, called "Wag", which denotes "shouting". Some aspects of Egyptian religion are greatly focused on death and the afterlife, although its festivals were really joyful celebrations. The same character pervades the Etruscan civilization as well.

Perhaps it is a spirit of defiance against the inevitability of death that finds a harmonious thread across nearly all religions and cultures at the point of origin. Jane Harrison, in her _Prelegomina to the Study of Greek Religion_, sees the birth of ritual and religion itself in the apotropaic banishment of malign spirits, Keres, which are, I think, much like the "hungry ghosts" appeased in oriental as well as Roman classical traditions.

The 9th, 11th and 13th of May marked the Lemuria festival, wherein the Roman paterfamilias slaked the hunger of dangerous spirits by spitting at them nine black beans in a midnight patrol of the domicile. Those days were reserved for the hostile spirits, but later in the year, precisely on August 24, October 5, and November 8, special times were again reserved for the spirits. The Mundus Cereis, ceremonial entrance to the underworld, was opened so spirits could briefly wander the earth. Again, we have a breaking of the barrier between the worlds. No public business would be conducted on each of those days.

Japan's Obon festival falls in either July or August between the 13th and the 15th. In Korea, the parallel August observance is called Chusok. In Chinese Buddhist as well as Taoist practice, the holiday is known by various names including Chung Yuan or Yue Laan (in Hong Kong) and fell on August 12 of the year 2003. There is a precise formula for determining when the holiday is held, which is the 15th day of the 7th lunar month. On this day, Hungry Ghosts roam the earth for 24 hours under their terrifying king, Taai Si Wong. There's a reason why the Hungry Ghosts are hungry, for these are spirits who have no family members honoring them and caring for their needs in the afterlife. So, they must be given a general yearly appeasement. In China and Vietnam, so-called hell money - special high-denomination "banknotes" are burned as offerings of wealth, as are other symbolic gifts of paper.

India, too, has the Diwali "Festival of Lights", the most ancient pan-Hindu festival. Many different stories are attached as local variations, for it is very steeped in antiquity. But the one commonality is bright lamps are there to light the way of departed spirits. It is sometimes compared with Christmas, but occurs close to the time of Hallowe'en, at the dark of the new moon however. In 2003, it occurred on October 25.

Not only is there the common thread of the opening of the barriers between the living and dead, there is also a common thread of Death being overcome, for it is mocked by joyful festivity and remembrance. Its sting is removed for awhile and a universal truth shines instead. This is something to which all can agree, whether they believe in 'spirits' or don't believe in them. When we have passed from this world of the living, something yet remains for certain, and this thing is the impression left by our lives upon loved ones and upon everyone our lives have touched in innumerable ways. Our deeds outlive us, without question.

''That which is remembered lives'', says the Egyptian Book Of The Dead. Remembrance is the indissoluble woven chain connecting us back to our most ancient origins as well as to each other in the present age and ages to come. Is that not, in fact, the origin of the word, "religion"? The Latin word "religio" literally means ''to re-link''. We renew multiple links through our connection with ancestral voices and tradition. These days given to celebrating the dead serve to reconnect us to all that has made us what we are.

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