Los Dias de Muertos: The Days of the Dead

All human societies find ways to remember their dead. In Mexico, during los días de muertos or ‘days of the dead’, the living honour the departed with lavish offerings in homes and cemeteries. This is not a sombre occasion, but a time of feasting and reunion. Market stalls sell sugar skulls and figures in the shape of guitars, sheep and angels. Toy-makers create miniature coffins, and cardboard skeletons that dance with the pull of a string. Many artefacts are small and ephemeral, but others are larger and more enduring. In Mexico City, the celebrated Linares family make life-size papier-mâché skeletons and skulls.

Sugar skulls on sale in the state of Mexico (© Chloë Sayer)

To an outsider, these celebrations might seem macabre, but in Mexico death is seen as part of life. This festival, the most important in the Mexican calendar, is a complex event with roots that go back far in time. Although modern Mexico is predominantly Roman Catholic, pre-Christian beliefs and practices are still an important force. Nearly 500 years of conquest, colonisation and change have not erased the legacy left by pre-Hispanic cultures.

Death, for the ancient peoples of Mexico, signified not an end but a stage in a constant cycle. This cycle paralleled the yearly sequence of the seasons: after the dry period, when vegetation died, the rains brought new growth. The Aztecs, who rose to power after 1325 CE, regarded life and death as complementary. In the centre of Mexico City, overlooked by the Metropolitan Cathedral, lies the Templo Mayor (Great Temple) of the Aztecs. Each year, ongoing archaeological excavations provide new information about Aztec art and religion.

Skull carvings found at the Templo Mayor in Zocalo, Mexico City

Imagined vertically, the Aztec universe incorporated thirteen celestial planes, our own terrestrial level, and nine planes of the underworld. Mictlan, the ninth and deepest level, was the cold and shadowy realm of the death god Mictlantecuhtli and his female counterpart Mictecacihuatl. Imagined horizontally, the universe was determined by the four cardinal points. North was the direction of death and cold.

The destiny of the soul was determined by the manner of death. Warriors who died on the battlefield were rewarded for their valour. From dawn until midday, they followed the celestial path of Tonatiuh, the sun god. After four years, they became hummingbirds. Women who died in childbirth, regarded as another form of battle, accompanied the sun from midday to dusk. These female spirits, the cihuateteo, were portrayed with skull faces. People who died a watery death joined the rain gods in Tlalocan, the place of eternal summer. Dead infants went to a realm called Chichihualcuauhco. There they waited for the chance to be reborn, and drank milk from the fruits of a tree. However, these were the exceptions. Most souls, after a hazardous four-year journey, reached Mictlan, the shadowy realm of the death god.

Papier-mâché skulls for the Day of the Dead by Mexican artist Felipe Linares Mendoza (© David Lavender).

Ritual killings were a key part of Aztec religion. The hearts and blood of victims, usually captives, were offered to the gods to maintain their life-force. Without this vital nourishment, it was thought, the sun would lose the strength to rise each day. By these means, Aztec priests and rulers renewed the cycles of time and ensured the rebirth of life. The Aztec year, divided into eighteen 20-day periods, included several feasts associated with cults of the dead. Miccailhuitontli and Miccailhuitl, held in the ninth and tenth months, honoured the Little Dead and the Adult Dead. There was feasting and dancing. Flowers were strung together; offerings of food included tamales (steamed cakes of maize dough) made with the meat of dogs and turkeys.

The Aztecs were not alone in their religious beliefs. As the inheritors of cultural traditions that were many centuries old, they shared their cosmology and their pantheon of gods with the other inhabitants of ancient Mexico. Representations of skulls, skeletons and human sacrifice abound — not just in Central Mexico, but also on the Gulf Coast and among the Maya. After 150 CE, the preoccupation with death intensified. Ball-courts, where life-and-death ball-games were played, often displayed carved stone panels. At El Tajín in Veracruz and Chichén Itzá in Yucatán, scenes of human sacrifice evoked new life. Serpents, and a flowering plant bearing fruit, were shown issuing from the neck of a sacrificial victim at Chichén Itzá.

El Castillo, also known as the Temple of Kukulcan, at the center of Chichen Itza

In Christian Europe, mortality was viewed very differently. Although death was seen as a journey, the destination was governed by moral precepts and by the Last Judgement. While the virtuous could aspire to heavenly bliss, eternal damnation awaited the sinner. All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day have been celebrated on 1 and 2 November since the 14th century or earlier. Inextricably linked, they honour Christian saints and commemorate the ‘faithful departed’ who die as good Christians. Over time, especially in southern Italy and Spain, both feasts accumulated beliefs and practices deemed ‘unorthodox’ by the Church. On 2 November, souls were popularly thought to come back from heaven to bless the households where they had once lived. To welcome them and to gain their protection, the living would set out offerings of food in cemeteries.

Decorating graves in the cemetery of San Antonino in the state of Oaxaca (© Chloë Sayer)

The Spanish Conquest of 1521 brought Christianity to the land we now call Mexico. This early period of missionary zeal saw the mass destruction of ‘pagan’ monuments and artefacts. By 1536, crusading friars had baptized between four and nine million people. Although liturgical festivals were widely adopted, they often took on a pre-Christian significance. The feasts of All Saints’ and All Souls’ soon combined cultural traits from Europe — both orthodox and unorthodox — with existing traditions. Writing in the late 16th century, the Dominican friar Diego Durán noted with regret that these Christian festivals had Aztec undertones. As he watched celebrants make offerings of chocolate, candles, fowl and fruit, Durán guessed that they were perpetuating pre-Hispanic rites for the dead.

Day of the Dead altar with offerings of flowers and food to welcome the souls of the departed, Oaxaca state. (© Chloë Sayer)

Today, five centuries after the Spanish Conquest, more than 50 indigenous languages are still spoken in Mexico. Náhuatl, the language of the Aztec empire, is spoken by some two million people who are known today as the Nahua. The Nahua celebrate the arrival of their dead with respect and deep affection. So, too, do the Zapotec, the Mixtec, the Maya and many other descendants of ancient Mexican cultures.

The cultural fusion has been so complete that it would be difficult to determine today which aspects of the festival were introduced from Christian Europe and which aspects had existed previously as part of the indigenous cult of the dead.  Although the festival varies from region to region, it is always regarded as a time of reunion, remembrance and renewal. For a brief period, the living join together with relatives and friends to welcome back the souls of the departed on their yearly visit to Earth. Images of Christian saints have replaced the old gods, but celebrations convey a sense of timelessness.

In some regions it is customary to welcome the souls of dead children on 31 October, and the souls of dead adults on 1 November. They are guided on their journey home by pathways of flower petals, scattered outside and inside the house. An abundance of flowers and other offerings are set out on the domestic altar — usually a table for Catholic saints and holy pictures. The Mexican marigold, known by its Náhuatl name of cempasúchil, predominates. With its pungent odour and brilliant yellow colouring, it has long been associated with death. The deceased of all ages are given incense, candles, salt and water, soft drinks, figures made from bread or sugar, fruits and tamales.  Special foods, lovingly prepared without chile, are served in tiny dishes for dead children. Spicy foodstuffs are reserved for the adult dead, who also receive alcohol and cigarettes. Sometimes these offerings are accompanied by gifts of clothing or work tools. After the souls have extracted the ‘essence’ from these offerings, they are enjoyed by the living.

Festivities end in most places on 2 November. The living gather in cemeteries to say a fond farewell to loved ones. Graves, refurbished for the occasion, are bedecked with flowers and greenery. Sometimes there is music and even dancing. In its traditional form, the Mexican festival of the dead has little in common with Halloween. According to believers, the dead return in peace, not as ghouls or spooks. When los días de muertos draw to a close, most celebrants feel comforted and happy.

Children surrounded by flowers for the dead in the state of Puebla. (© Chloë Sayer)

The days of the dead are celebrated with considerable care and visual splendour throughout the central valleys of Oaxaca. Crispina Navarro Gómez was born in 1963 in the village of Santo Tomás Jalieza. A celebrated weaver, she has won numerous awards for her elaborately patterned sashes and bags. On weekdays Crispina tethers her backstrap loom to a tree, near flowering bougainvilleas, in a large open space behind the house. Working beside her, and using the same tree, are her sisters Margarita and Inés, and her mother Mariana.

Crispina and Inés Navarro Gómez weaving in Santo Tomás Jalieza, Oaxaca state. (© Chloë Sayer)

Crispina explains how the returning souls are greeted each year. Her father, don Ignacio, died in 1985. Much missed throughout the year, his return is eagerly awaited. “On November 1st we set out the offering on the altar of our house for those who have died. Most of all we do this for my father, but all are welcome on this day. We never put out photographs, out of consideration for those who lived a long time ago. Our grandparents would feel upset to see only one photograph there. It is far better to wait for everyone. We put out flowers, incense, bread, chocolate — all the things they enjoyed. Many people believe that the taste goes from these things — that the taste and the aroma are lost. We set up the altar on the previous day, because deceased children arrive on the 31st of October in the afternoon. On November 2 we visit the cemetery. We take flowers to the graves of our departed. At noon the bells sound because they are leaving, and we experience a kind of tranquility. Those who are leaving also feel tranquil, knowing that we are well.”

Ofrenda for the souls of the departed in the home of Crispina Navarro Gómez in Santo Tomás Jalieza, Oaxaca state. (© Chloë Sayer)

The days of the dead are a focus for many arts and crafts, and makers throughout Mexico usually start production weeks or months in advance. Work, often sold far from its place of origin, is generally unsigned. Yet it is the output of these ‘anonymous’ creators which gives the festival its unique character and visual power. As mid-October approaches, markets fill with pottery incense burners, ornate vases and candle-holders, embroidered cloths, and cut paper banners with the delicacy of lace. Many of these elements are needed for offering tables in the home, where they honour the memory of the departed. In towns and cities, festivities are more exuberant. Bakers paint their windows with cavorting skeletons to advertise los panes de muertos or ‘bread of the dead’. Market stalls sell tiny skeletons of painted clay. These portray wedding couples, priests hearing confession, footballers, and skeletons praying on their knees at the graveside of dead relatives. Caught up in a modern dance of death, they caricature the activities and vanities of everyday life.

Papier-mâché catafalques on sale in the market in the city of Oaxaca (© Chloë Sayer)

Death, the great equaliser, is an important theme for popular artists who work with papier mâché. Members of the Linares family live behind the Sonora Market in Mexico City. Inspired by the satirical engravings of José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), Felipe and Leonardo Linares — born in 1936 and 1963 respectively — have become chroniclers for the modern age. From their cramped and untidy workshop come skeleton disco-dancers, fire-eaters, punk rockers, musicians and tourists clad in baggy Bermuda shorts holding hamburgers and bottles of Coca Cola. Posada’s best-known image, La Calavera Catrina, is now linked in the popular imagination with the festival of the dead. Originally shown c. 1890 as a skull wearing a large hat, Posada’s skeletal creation is elegantly clothed and rendered full-figure by the Linares family. Death holds no terror for Felipe Linares: “Skulls and skeletons are part of Mexican culture. We all know that we must die, that we will becomes bones in the end. We regard death with humour, but also with affection and respect. For us, death is part of life.”

‘La Catrina’ engraving by José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913)

In modern Mexico, the annual alternation of rain and drought, life and death, is evoked — not through monumental stone carvings — but by a cluster of marigolds on an offering table, or by skulls of papier mâché brightly painted with flowers and shimmering with glitter. Once a year, during los días de muertos, the dead — silent and invisible visitors from the afterlife — return to share the pleasures of the living.

Fresco by Diego Rivera showing Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City, 1923-4 (Secretaría de Educación Pública, Mexico City)
Chloe Sayer

Chloe Sayer

Chloë is a specialist in the art and culture of Mexico. She has curated exhibitions and published numerous books about Mexico. She regularly lectures for the Arts Society (formerly NADFAS), and has led several cultural tours to Mexico. Chloë studied languages at Trinity College, Dublin. A fluent Spanish-speaker, she has made ethnographic collections and carried out fieldwork in Mexico for the British Museum. In 2015 she guest-curated the exhibition ¡Viva México! Clothing and Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum, where she is a Research Associate. Based in London, she is a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain. Chloë has also worked on television documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4. Her many books include Arts and Crafts of Mexico (1990), Textiles from Mexico (2002), and Fiesta: Days of the Dead and other Mexican Festivals (2009). In 2016 the Mexican government awarded her the prestigious Ohtli medal to thank her for her commitment to Mexican culture.

Upcoming tours led by Chloë Sayer

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