Day of the Dead

views updated May 11 2018


DAY OF THE DEAD . The feast of All Saints Day and the liturgical celebration of All Souls Day have long histories in Western Christendom. The origins of these occasions in the Christian yearly cycle are uncertain, but by the fourteenth century they ranked immediately after Christmas and Holy Week in importance, and their celebration had been fixed on November 1 for All Saints Day and November 2 (or November 3 if November 2 fell on a Sunday) for All Souls Day. Since then these two festivities, most commonly known as the Days of the Dead, have been inextricably interrelated in the liturgy of the Western Church. At the onset of, perhaps even as the result of, the Reformation and the rise of modern science during the Renaissance, there was a significant decline in the ritual and ceremonial underpinnings of Christendom, but in the New World (more precisely in the Catholic New World) the rites, ceremonies, and symbolic meaning of All Saints Day and All Souls Day have been reinvigorated and in many ways have achieved their maximum elaboration.

Development of the Observances

All Saints Day commemorates those individuals who in the service of the church have achieved that ambivalent status of "sainthood." Although the transcendentally different natures of the omnipotent-omnipresent almighty God of Christian monotheism and its underlings, the saints, may be clearly understood and explained by theologians, this has not been the case for significant segments of practicing Christians since probably the formative period of Christianity between the first and fourth centuries ce. Indeed there is plenty of historical evidence that for sizable segments of Christendom the proliferation of saints and their relationship to God have come to look suspiciously like polytheism and have led to practices incompatible with monotheism. Moreover there are anthropologists (Ralph Linton, John M. Roberts, L. Keith Brown, Hugo G. Nutini) who maintain that the bulk of Christianity for centuries has been practicing monolatry (or polylatry) and not monotheismthat is, that in behavior (psychologically) and practice (ritually and ceremonially) no transcendental difference emerges between God and the saints, including the many manifestations of the Virgin Mary. This is certainly the case with Mesoamerican Indians in the early twenty-first century. Most contemporary Mexican Indians have not internalized the theological distinction between God and the saints, even if they somewhat vaguely understand it, and in their actual religious behavior and practice God is little more than a primus inter pares, a more powerful deity than the many saints and the various forms of the Virgin Mary. Mexican Indians, and often rural mestizos, often rank the village patron saint higher than God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost or they center their Catholicism on the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe, thus in effect abandoning the central tenet of monotheism.

Lest the reader think that the syncretic nature of Catholicism in this region of the New World is a special case, two examples from other parts of the world may be cited. In their ranking and expressive analysis of the saints as conceived and practiced by Chinese Catholics in Hong Kong, John M. Roberts and John T. Myers found that the array of Catholic supernaturals (God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost, several dozen saints, and half a dozen manifestations of the Virgin Mary) was similar to the Chinese pantheon of gods. The respondents conceived of these Catholic supernaturals as gods who have definite rankings and spheres of action. In many peasant communities in the West as wellsuch as southern Italy, Sicily, and southern Spainthe saints are conceived as deities of sorts, with powers in their own right and not infrequently arranged in arrays similar to classical polytheistic pantheons. Whether or not the distinction between God and saints is understood or explicitly made by these subsocieties, the fact remains that in behavior and practice these segments of Christendom are practicing monolātry, not monotheism. Indeed at least in Catholicism it may be difficult to be a theologically pure monotheist.

The feast of All Saints Day is in a sense democratic in that it commemorates all the saints of God, canonized and uncanonized, known and unknown. It is a rite of propitiation and intensification, in which the church celebrates the external glory of God in the company of those who are closest to his perfection. The origins of the feast are lost, but there are indications that as early as the middle of the fourth century a day was set aside to commemorate the martyrs who had died before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Specifically May 13 commemorated all the martyrs of Edessa (an important early center of Christianity, now the city of Urfa in southern Turkey), and it appears that this date soon spread to the western empire. By the early seventh century most bishoprics in the West celebrated on this day their own and other martyrs of Christendom. Some scholars doubt that there is a connection between May 13 and November 1, and no one has determined how and under what circumstances a feast of all saints came to be celebrated on the latter date. Scholars also are not agreed as to when the category of "saint" or the status of "sainthood" appears in Christian theology and practice. It is safe to assume, however, that there were no saints as ritual and ceremonial objects of worship until the beginning of the seventh century. It is reasonable to surmise an evolution from martyr to saint, but the social and religious condition of this transformation and amalgamation are not clear. In any case, by the beginning of the ninth century November 1 was widely celebrated as the day of all martyrs and saints in Western Christendom, and in the latter part of the eleventh century, during the papacy of Gregory VII, that date officially became All Saints Day in the modern sense of the feast. Since then All Saints Day has steadily increased in importance as a ritual occasion in the yearly cycle, and in southern Europe, especially Spain, it developed elaborate proportions beginning in the early fourteenth century.

All Souls Day, November 2, is a liturgical celebration of the Western Church commemorating the "faithfully departed"that is, those who have died within the fold of the church. It is observed as a day for honoring and rejoicing with those who are in heaven, offering prayers for those who are in purgatory so that they may soon enter the kingdom of heaven, and in general supplicating with the dead to watch over the living and thanking them for past intercessions. All Souls Day is a yearly rite of propitiation and thanksgiving and, in the popular conscience, a veritable cult of the dead. Indeed it is a form of ancestor worship somewhat reminiscent of the Roman gods of the household, the lares and penates (the feast of Parentalia), from which it probably developed. Among the many organizational, ritual, ceremonial, and symbolic examples of syncretism as Christianity developed out of the confluence of Hebrew monotheism and Roman polytheism, All Souls Day is one of the clearest.

Until well into the Middle Ages the church was reluctant to establish a specific liturgical day for propitiating and thanking the dead. The reason for this reluctance was the desire to dissociate the church from the persistent and tenacious pre-Christian rites and ceremonies of the cult of the dead and ancestor worship, widespread among all branches of Indo-European polytheism, which from the beginning the church regarded as "superstitious" and theologically impure. The efforts of the early church fathers (Augustine, Jerome, Athanasius, Boniface, and Chrysostom) to render what they regarded as superstitious and heretic remains of the polytheistic past (many aspects of witchcraft and sorcery, rites and ceremonies associated with particular festivities and the cult of the gods, the cult of the dead itself, and so on) indicate that a significant amalgam of beliefs and practices of the old and new religions already existed. By the beginning of the eighth century, at least in the circum-Mediterranean area, many aspects of Christianity had been significantly syncretized. Despite these efforts and the efforts of subsequent theologians, as Christianity spread to more marginal areas of Europe, syncretism placed a permanent mark on several practices of the Christian faith. More than the other two great branches of monotheism (Judaism and Islam), Christianity has been unable to divest itself completely of polytheistic beliefs and practices out of which it arose. Christian theologians have always insisted on an ideologically pure monotheism, and ever since the church became an imperial force in the middle of the fourth century, it has successfully obliterated deviations that smacked of polytheism, pantheism, monolatry, and other deviant supernatural conceptions. Nevertheless the syncretic aspects of Christianity have manifested themselves in many contexts and segments of Christian worship, and theologians, sometimes to their embarrassment, have had to accommodate rituals, beliefs, and behaviors with a distinct polytheistic, pantheistic, or monolatrous character within a strict monotheistic ideology. The often marked dichotomy between theology and practice appears to be a constant from Christianity's folk beginnings to its imperial maturity during the first half of the sixteenth century.

Although prayers to the dead were encouraged from earliest times, the church, for the reasons given above, was slow in giving liturgical recognition to the rites and ceremonies concerning the dead that probably had been going on for centuries in many parts of Christendom. However, Pentecost Monday was dedicated to the worship of the dead in Spain by the middle of the seventh century. For reasons unknown, November 2 was set aside for commemoration of All Souls Day, a practice that was well established in the Cluniac monasteries in northern France by the middle of the twelfth centurythat is, not long after November 1 had officially become All Saints Day. Unlike All Saints Day, however, All Souls Day never acquired official liturgical statusfurther evidence that the church was unwilling to formally sanction a celebration so pregnant with pagan elements and unchristian evocations. All Souls Day came to have liturgical status only by custom. Nonetheless by the second half of the fifteenth century All Saints Day and All Souls Day were liturgical feasts celebrated as a unit and ranked among the four most important occasions in the yearly ritual cycle of Western Christendom.

What the church was up against throughout the Dark and Middle Ages is well known; the situation has been replicated several times during the past five hundred years in the context of the expansion of western European peoples throughout the world. With specific reference to All Souls Day, many beliefs and practices of pagan origins or corruptions of Orthodox Christian beliefs concerning the dead were associated with this celebration and ancillary concerns. Throughout Western Christendom, these beliefs and practices survived until well into the sixteenth century. With the onset of secularization in Western society, they were displaced to marginal areas and to the lower levels of the social order, but they are still found in circum-Mediterranean areas and in other parts of Europe.

Beliefs and Practices

Among the best-known beliefs and practices that were associated with the All Souls Day complex and relevant to the cult of the dead, the following may be mentioned. During the vigil of November 2 the souls of the dead came back in spirit to bless the household where they had died. On November 2 the souls in purgatory came back in the form of phantoms, witches, and toads, lizards, and other repellent animals in order to scare or harm persons who wronged or injured them during their lives. Food offerings were made to the dead in the cemeteries, ritually disposed of by those concerned after the souls had symbolically tasted the food. Special food offerings, consisting of a dish or drink that he or she had particularly liked, were made to prominent departed members of the household. Garments that had been worn by particularly good or pious members of the household were displayed on the family altar so that the souls would rejoice upon contemplating such a display of affection and become effective protectors of their living kin. The way to the house was marked by recognized signposts of flowers and other decorations so that the returning souls could more easily find their earthly homes. This veritable cult of the dead during the Dark and Middle Ages had probably changed little since Roman times.

All Saints Day, on the other hand, was rather heavily influenced by northern Indo-European polytheism and by the liturgical feasts of the Byzantine (Orthodox, Armenian) and Coptic churches, which in turn were doubly influenced by other Near Eastern polytheistic systems. Both the Germanic and Celtic traditions, particularly the latter, celebrated in the late autumn a complex of rites and activities associated with the end of harvest and the impending arrival of winter and intended to honor the gods of agriculture and natural elements. During the process of conversion to Christianity, the church condemned this complex as dealing with the devil and dabbling in witchcraft and sorcery. In the British Isles this was the celebration of Samhain, which has survived among English- and Gaelic-speaking peoples and is variously known as Hallow E'en, Allhallows, Hallowmas, and most commonly Halloween. Probably by the middle of the fifteenth century Halloween had coalesced as a syncretic component of English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh Catholicism. By that time the high point of the celebration was the vigil of All Saints Day, and since then Halloween has been intimately associated with this liturgical feast as well as All Souls Day. The Protestant Reformation kept the celebration of All Saints Day, but for several reasons (most significantly the denial of the belief in purgatory) it abolished the feast of All Souls Day. With the increasing secularization of northern European societies, the HalloweenAll Saints Day complex was transformed into what it is in the early twenty-first century, a secular feast. In many parts of northern Europe, however, the church was never able to stamp out completely many beliefs and practices associated with regional complexes that were instrumental in shaping the combined liturgical celebration of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Thus even in the early twenty-first century, from Ireland to Russia, the ethnographer or folklorist finds survivals of these beliefs and practices (related mainly to food, drink, and special rites performed in the household or cemetery) among peasant and rural folk.

The syncretic background of All Saints Day in the Byzantine Church is not well known and still less that of the Coptic Church. However, the contemporary celebration of All Saints Day and All Souls Day in the East indicates that syncretism there was perhaps more influenced by pagan elements than in the West. The celebrations of the Greek and Armenian Churches appear to be more diversified and exhibit more traits of early Christian origin that is the case in the Western Churches. The Eastern Churches celebrate All Souls Day on several different dates: the Greek Church on the Saturday before Sexagesima Sunday (the second Sunday before Lent); the Armenian Church on Easter Sunday (as in Spain in the seventh century). The most interesting celebration of All Souls Day is in the Syrian-Antiochene Church. On the Friday before Septuagesima (the third Sunday before Lent), dead priests are honored; on Friday before Sexagesima, all the blessed souls in heaven and purgatory are worshipped; and on Friday before Quinquagesima (the first Sunday before Lent), all those who have died away from home and parents and friends are remembered. An even more elaborate division of labor in the celebration of All Souls Day is present in rural Tlaxcala, Mexico. Perhaps there is a connection with the Syrian-Antiochene rites, or it may be simply a continuation of pre-Hispanic practices.

It is probably in southern Italy and Spain that the celebration of the combined feasts of All Saints Day and All Souls Day acquired its most complex and elaborate form. In Spain this may be attributable to the Christian reconquest of Spain from the Moors in particular and Muslims inputs in general, but the evidence is not conclusive. It is certain, however, that the Dominican order was instrumental in enhancing the importance of All Saints DayAll Souls Day during the fifteenth century. For example, the Dominicans initiated the custom of having a priest celebrate three masses for the eternal glory and rest of the faithfully departed on All Souls Day. This action gained quick acceptance throughout Spain, and All Souls Day became ritually more important than All Saints Day. (This apparently never happened in any other country of western Europe.) By the middle of the fifteenth century the combined celebration of All Saints Day and All Souls Day in Spain was commonly referred to as Todos Santos. This combined liturgical celebration had become increasingly important and ranked just below Christmas and Holy Week in the yearly ritual cycle of Spanish Catholicism, popularly if not theologically. It was in this form that Todos Santos was introduced into the New World by the mendicant friars in the first half of the sixteenth century, and All Souls Day has remained the most ritually significant of the two days.

In Mexico the Day of the Dead is also known as Todos Santos and, after Christmas and Holy Week (Easter), is the most important celebration in the annual religious cycle. In several respects it is more elaborate than in Spain due to its syncretic component, which reinforced the Spanish Day of the Dead with similar beliefs and practices of Pre-Hispanic polytheism. The celebration of Todos Santos has three main components: the offerings to the dead on the household altar, the decoration of the graves in the cemetery, and the celebration of the different kinds of dead from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. All three of these components, but particularly the last, are heavily laden with pre-Hispanic elements. Moreover the sociological significance of the Todos Santos greatly departs from its Spanish antecedents. November 1 and 2, the central core of the celebration, are homecoming for Mexican folk people (rural Indian and mestizo communities); those who have migrated to the city return to visit their kin and together remember the dead, and if they do not return for three consecutive years, they are no longer regarded as members of the community. Throughout the Todos Santos cycle (from a week before to a week after November 1) people are on their best behavior, exchange offerings, and make special efforts to intensify kinship, ritual kinship (compadrazgo ), and friendship relationships. This, in other words, is a "sacralized" period or a kind of treuga Dei (truth of God) in the community's annual cycle.

See Also

Afterlife, article on Mesoamerican Concepts; Funeral Rites, article on Mesoamerican Funeral Rites.


Duchesne, Louis. Le Liber Pontificalis. Paris, 19551957. An indispensable source for reconstructing the evolution of All Saints Day and All Souls Day throughout the Dark and Middle Ages.

Gaillard, Jacques. Catholicisme. Paris, 1950. From the Catholic standpoint, this book offers many insights into the chronology, evolution, and interrelationship of All Saints Day and All Souls Day.

Hatch, Jane M. The American Book of Days. New York, 1978. A good source on the origins of All Saints Day in late antiquity and on the celebration of All Saints Day and All Souls Day in the United States.

Hennig, John. "The Meaning of All the Saints." Medieval Studies 10 (1948): 132167. Provides a good account of the evolution of the cult of the dead in Western Christendom.

Kellner, Karl Adam Heinrich. Heortology. London, 1908. A good source in English on Catholic festivals with detailed information on the celebration of All Saints Day and All Souls Day.

Lane, Sarah, Marilyn Turkovich, and Peggy Mueller. Los Días de los Muertos, The Days of the Dead. Chicago, 1987. A useful source that includes some interesting ideas on the belief system and realization of Todos Santos in Spanish-speaking countries.

Leies, John A. Sanctity and Religion according to St. Thomas. Fribourg, Switzerland, 1963. An excellent source for understanding the concept of sainthood in Catholicism and how it is related to dead souls in general and the role saints play as mediators between humans and the deity.

Linton, Ralph, and Adelin Linton. Halloween through Twenty Centuries. New York, 1950. An excellent account of Halloween, its evolution throughout the centuries, and how it is related to the Christian cult of the dead.

Nutini, Hugo G. Todos Santos in Rural Tlaxcala: A Syncretic, Expressive, and Symbolic Analysis of the Cult of the Dead. Princeton, N.J., 1988. This book provides an exhaustive account of the Days of the Dead in Tlaxcala in the early twenty-first century, including the syncretic origins of the cult of the dead in the interaction of sixteenth-century Spanish Catholicism and Mesoamerican Indian polytheism.

Radó, Polikarp. Enchiridion Liturgicum. 2 vols. Rome, 1961. A good handbook on Catholic liturgical practices that includes many entries on the cult of the saints and the cult of the dead.

Las Tradiciones de Días de Muertos en México. Mexico City, 1987. Good regional descriptions of beliefs and practices of All Saints Day and All Souls Day for an area of Christendom where the Day of the Dead is probably most pronounced.

Hugo G. Nutini (2005)

Day of The Dead

views updated Jun 11 2018


DAY OF THE DEAD. In Mexico, the festival of Día de los Muertos embodies the greatest expression of both popular Catholicism and the national cuisine. People construct altars in homes and graveyards throughout the country in order to feed the souls of the dead. Church officials recognize two holy days, November 1 (All Saints' Day), in commemoration of saints and martyrs, and November 2 (All Souls' Day), in memory of the faithful departed. According to popular belief, the angelitos (deceased children) return on the evening of October 31 and the adults on the following night, although the dates in local celebrations vary all the way from October 28 to November 4. The feast for the dead originated as a form of ancestor worship, and the clergy were long reluctant to incorporate such pagan practices into the liturgical calendar. The festival held particularly strong associations with pre-Hispanic agrarian cults because it coincided with the maize harvest.

Celebrations begin with the cleaning of the graves and the construction of the ofrenda, or altar. At home this consists of a table or platform hung from the ceiling, covered with a white cloth and supporting an arch of palm fronds. The ofrenda are decorated with flowers, particularly the cempasúchil (marigold), the "flower of the dead," as well as the magenta-colored cockscomb, a white gypsophila, gladioli, and carnations. The same flowers are also used to decorate tombs, and the sweet smell of copal, the Native American incense, is ubiquitous. Other altar decorations include images of the deceased as well as papeles picados, colored paper with cutout designs.

The foods offered to the dead vary according to age and taste, but bread, water, and salt are always included. The bread is made from a special egg dough in a round shape, with crisscrossed strips of dough forming bones, and a skull in the center. Sugar candies with similar skull and calavera (skeleton) designs are also popular. In some areas of Oaxaca and Michoacán, bakers shape the bread to resemble humans or animals. Offerings for children are miniature in size and relatively simple: breads, candies, fruits, and milk or soft drinks. The adult dead receive the finest foods, grown-up breads and sugar figures, as well as candied pumpkin and other sweets. More elaborate preparations include mole (turkey in a rich chili sauce) and tamales (corn dumplings stuffed with meat and chili and steamed in husks or banana leaves). The spirits also drink their favorite beverages, whether soft drinks, coffee, chocolate, beer, or tequila. Some people maintain that the level of the liquid decreases overnight, showing that the dead do indeed return to share in the feast.

The Day of the Dead has recently become an important tourist attraction for towns such as Mixquic, near Mexico City, and in the state of Oaxaca. Yet despite this increasing commercialization, the festival exemplifies the distinctiveness of the Mexican mentality; rather than a time of trick or treat, it celebrates the intimate connections between the living and the dead.

See also Christianity; Death and Burial; Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts; Halloween; Holidays; Mexico; Religion and Food.


Barnés de Castro, Francisco, et al. Ofrenda de muertos. Mexico, D.F.: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1998.

Carmichael, Elizabeth, and Chloë Sayer. The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico. London: British Museum Press, 1991.

Garcíagodoy, Juanita. Digging the Days of the Dead: A Reading of Mexico's Días de muertos. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1998.

Nutini, Hugo. Todos Santos in Rural Tlaxcala: A Syncretic, Espressive, and Symbolic Analysis of the Cult of the Dead. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Ríos, Guadalupe, et al. Día de muertos: La Celebración de la fiesta del 2 de noviembre en la segunda mitad del siglo XIX. Mexico, D.F.: Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, 1995.

Verti, Sebastián. Tradiciones mexicanas. Mexico: Editorial Diana, 1991.

Jeffrey M. Pilcher

Day of the Dead

views updated Jun 11 2018

Day of the Dead

Rituals of honoring the dead rank among the most important spiritual traditions for Chicanos and Mexicanos on both sides of the United States/Mexico border. Rooted in Mesoamerican indigenous practices of welcoming, nourishing, and communicating with the dead on a cyclical basis, the tradition reinforces cosmologies that understand death to be complementary to life—an aspect of life not to be feared, but to be honored. Through communing with the dead, the living are nourished and life continues.

In Mexico, evidence of rituals for the dead exist from 1500 b.c.e. Among the Mexica, the ninth and tenth months of their eighteen-month calendar year were devoted to rituals for the deceased children followed by rituals for the deceased adults. Special altars offering flowers, foods, drinks, incense, and wood-carved images of the dead enhanced the public ceremonies and sacred dances. Following the introduction of Spanish Christianity in the sixteenth century, the Catholic feasts of honoring the dead on November 1 and 2 merged with the indigenous traditions as structural and ideological similarities between the practices facilitated a fusion. In both religious traditions, the dead were regarded as protectors of the household and were entitled to particular rites. During the Christian vigil, the souls in heaven returned in spirit to bless the households where they had died. For the Mexica, during the last three days of the tenth month, the dead came back to interact symbolically with their families. The dead in both theologies did not hold power in their own right, but functioned as intermediaries and intercessors before the respective deities. A complex integration of the traditions occurred rather than a simple syncretism.

The celebration of the dead today varies in many parts of Latin America and the United States, depending on several variables, including religious and ethnic identity, acculturation, and class. In 1972, Chicana/Chicano artists and cultural workers in California reintroduced the tradition to Chicano urban populations. Self-Help Graphics, a community art center in East Los Angeles, held its first Day of the Dead celebration as a form of healing for a community devastated by police brutality during Vietnam War protests. By the early 1990s, schools, colleges, community centers, and galleries throughout the United States held their own Day of the Dead celebrations.

Ofrendas (offerings) placed on family and/or public altars are the mainstays of the ritual observance, in addition to cemetery visits and graveside offerings. The style and elaborateness of the offerings vary, depending on aesthetics, income, and the influence of Catholic and/or indigenous ways. Symbols from both religious traditions can easily coexist on an ofrenda (offering) representing a mestiza or mestizo spirituality. The cempasúchil (marigold flower), with its bright color and strong scent, leads the dead to the altars. Candles, incense, photographs, food, and drink that the dead enjoyed while living enhance the offering. Sugar skulls colorfully decorated represent "the icon of our dual existence" and are playful reminders of human mortality. Pottery, memorabilia, embroidered cloths, and toys for the children present only the best of material possessions for the dead. Ofrendas reflect the aesthetics of the living as much as those of the dead.

Catholic observances traditionally focus on the Eucharistic celebrations of November 1 and 2 to honor the dead. As the centrality of the ofrenda receives wider recognition by pastoral agents, some church communities are constructing Day of the Dead altars inside their sanctuaries.

Public celebrations on both sides of the border reflect a very festive mood as the living joyously remember their loved ones. In many parts of southern Mexico, overnight visits with food, music, and drink at the cemetery unite a family as they accompany their dead. Processions, plays, and musical entertainment characterize many of the celebrations in the United States. The festivities also provide a time to present Chicana or Chicano art and poetry reflecting themes of bringing death and life to Latino communities. While these public celebrations might appear to be very secularized, the underlying spiritual orientation of communing with the dead shapes all the activities. This tradition holds political as well as cultural and spiritual significance as marginalized ethnic communities in the United States claim public space to annually honor the dead in a society that generally limits "death" to the few days preceding and following a funeral. Many non-Latinos appear to be attracted to the tradition, as it facilitates an ongoing relationship with deceased loved ones.

See alsoBelonging, Religious; Deathand Dying; Latino Traditions; Mestizo Worship; Popular Religion; Religious Communities; Religious Experience; Ritual; Sociologyof Religion; Spirit.


Garciagodoy, Juanita. DiggingtheDaysoftheDead. 1998.

Hoyt-Goldsmith, Diane. DayoftheDead:AMexican-American Celebration. 1994.

Lara Medina

Days of the Dead

views updated May 21 2018

Days of the Dead

Days of the Dead, a religious observation celebrated throughout Mexico on November 2, honors the memories of departed family members. The farther south one travels in Mexico, the more elaborate the celebration becomes. It is mainly in southern and central areas where Mexicans decorate their panteones (cemeteries) and the nearby streets with vivid imagery of death, usually skeletons and skulls. Families make altars in their homes, where the photos of departed souls are prominently placed alongside religious icons, ofrendas (offerings) of food such as pan de muertos baked in shapes of skulls and figures, and yellow marigolds, the symbol of death. On the eve of November 2, All Saints Day, some families spend the night at the cemetery in a velada (wake), lighting candles and making offerings at the tombs of their loved ones.

Some communities organize a desfile (parade) with participants dressed up as ghouls, ghosts, mummies, and skeletons carrying an open coffin with an animated corpse played by a villager. The skeletal representations are given feminine nicknames such as la calaca (the skeleton), la pelona (baldy), la flaca (skinny), and la huesada (bony). This most likely originates in the pre-European practice of assigning a female characteristic to the deity overseeing death. The Aztecs called this goddess Mictecacihuatl.

The traveler in the northern or urban areas of Mexico will find no such colorful observances. While El Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is marked in these regions, the activities are usually more sedate, consisting of placing marigolds at the tombs or either cleaning or refurbishing these resting places. But even here, a festive air surrounds the cemeteries as vendors peddle food, flowers, and religious relics.

There is no doubt that Mexicans demonstrate a unique devotion to a day that all Christians in varying degrees observe. The reasons for this are varied. In areas that retain a vibrant indigenous tradition, this Christian religious holiday is a part of a syncretic process, a blend of pre-Columbian beliefs in the return of the ancestors to their villages and the Christian belief that only the flesh decays but not the soul.

During the Days of the Dead, Mexicans deploy mockery and fraternization to openly confront and accept the inevitability of death that is so feared and hidden in modern Western culture. Considering that contemporary and past pre-industrial cultures deal with death in a similar fashionthere are examples in India, Asia, or Africasuch conviviality in the face of death is a lively tradition in a country where the modern competes with a vigorous traditional past.

In the late nineteenth century, Chicanos and other Americans in the United States have taken to celebrating Days of the Dead with much fanfare. While these projects incorporate the most colorful and interesting features from Mexico, they are usually bereft of the religious dimension of authentic Mexican rites. Interestingly, in the San Francisco Bay area, the homosexual community has taken on this day of observation as a method of coping with the AIDS epidemic.

See also: Afterlife in Cross-Cultural Perspective; Communication with the Dead; Ghosts; Grief and Mourning in Cross-Cultural Perspective


Greenleigh, John. The Days of the Dead: Mexico's Festival of Communion with the Departed. San Francisco: Collins Publishers, 1991.

Hoyt-Goldsmith, Diane. Day of the Dead: A Mexican-American Celebration. New York: Holiday House, 1994.

Luenn, Nancy. A Gift for Abuelita: Celebrating the Day of the Dead. Flagstaff, AZ: Rising Moon, 1998.


Day of the Dead

views updated May 23 2018

Day of the Dead

The Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) is a popular holiday celebrated throughout Latin American countries. In Mexico it has become a major annual event anticipated several weeks before the actual celebration, with massive altars covered with offerings to deceased loved ones. Though now tied to the Roman Catholic feast days of All Hallows' Eve, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day (October 31-November 2), the Day of the Dead is rooted in the observances followed by Native Americans for centuries prior to the Spanish conquests. As with the Neo-Pagan celebration of Halloween, the Day of the Dead is seen as a time in which the spirits of the departed are seen as especially close and communication is possible. It is a time of remembrance, and the sorrow of the departure of loved ones is caught up in a celebration of the continuance of life.

In the belief system underlying the celebration, there are three possible resting places for the departed, one less desirable place called Mictlan and two more desirable. The final resting place is determined by the quality and number of acts committed in this life that were pleasing to the gods. At the time of death, the deceased is given a send-off that will assist in negotiating the passages to his/her final resting place. On the Day of the Dead, the home and/or graveyard is lit with candles, strong incense is burned, and loud music is played as part of the observance to assist the souls in finding their way back from their resting place to join in the celebration.

As Halloween has become one of the most observed holidays in North America (second only to Christmas in the number of homes decorated), so the Day of the Dead is widely observed from Ecuador to Mexico and southern California. Typical decorations include food offerings and cempazuchitl flower arrangements consisting of marigolds and candles. Food substances typically include chocolate, fruits, tamales, taquila, and mascal. Included in the decoration may be a set of marzipan skulls (bread shaped like a skull) surrounding the picture of a loved one especially remembered, or the pan de muerto, loaves of bread sometimes in the shape of the human body, topped with a crossed bone design. The decorations set the stage for a massive party in which music is played, food eaten, and drinks designed appropriately to alter one's consciousness consumed.

Evidence of a celebratory period of acknowledgment of the deceased at the end of the harvest season has been found by archeologists in many pre-Columbian sites, especially in Mexico and Central America. Following the Spanish conquest and the establishment of Catholicism as the state religion, this period of acknowledgement was incorporated into All Saints' day and All Souls' Day, which conveniently coincided with the period, and emerged as the Day of the Dead. In Mexican culture it includes a belief in the unity of death and life.


Carmichael, Elizabeth. The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.

Gonzalez-Crussi, Frank. The Day of the Dead: And Other Moral Reflections. San Diego: Harcourt-Brace, 1994.

Harrington, Kent. Día de los Muertos/Day of the Dead. Tucson, Ariz.: Dennis McMillan Publications, 1997.

Day of the Dead

views updated May 21 2018

Day of the Dead ★½ 1985

The third in Romero's trilogy of films about flesh-eating zombies taking over the world. Romero hasn't thought up anything new for the ghouls to do, and the humans are too nasty to care about this time around. For adult audiences. 91m/C VHS, DVD, Bluray Disc . Lori Cardille, Terry Alexander, Joe Pilato, Jarlath Conroy, Richard Liberty; D: George A. Romero; W: George A. Romero; C: Michael Gornick; M: John Harrison.