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  • Maria Eggemeyer

DAY OF THE DEAD: Life and Death Connections

Day of the Dead is celebrated with colorful festivities, music and offerings to the deceased, but is also rooted in ancient Mesoamerican traditions and beliefs that intimately connect the living to the dead.

Day of the Dead figures of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo

According to poet Octavio Paz in his essay The Labyrinth of Solitude, “the Mexican is intimately familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, and celebrates it.” Paz believed that a civilization that denied death ended by denying life itself. Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo felt as his compatriot and friend Octavio Paz did about recognizing death’s presence in life. Could it be that Tamayo was thumbing his nose and mocking it in his painting The Scoffer?

Oaxaca, the town in southwestern Mexico that is Rufino Tamayo’s birthplace, stands out for its rich tradition of celebrating the Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) the first two days of November. Today, tourists from all over come for bright festivities that feature live music, processions, and huge figural scenes made of colored sand. The living reunite with deceased relatives at the cemetery, bringing offerings of colorfully decorated skulls and skeletons molded in sugar, cut out of paper, modeled in clay, and illustrated in ink and paint. Poems and verses are dedicated to the deceased. And the living never forget the essential ingredient for a sentimental, appealing, and joyful celebration: the loved one’s favorite foods. All this, together with the pungently scented marigold (cempasútshil) and colorful cocks comb (cresta de gallo) flowers placed on the graves, lure the dead to return for a visit to the living each year.

Ofrenda (altar) with offerings in Oaxaca, Mexico

Studying the traditions of the ancient Mixtec peoples of the Oaxaca region and other nearby regions, archaeologist Eduardo Merlo told of their belief that the deceased did not really die until reaching the other side of the Chignahuapán river. The dead person had to cross this wide and fast-flowing river to get to the limits between life and death. If the person did not make it across, the awaiting fate was… nothingness. Items were placed in the person’s grave, such as new clothes and offerings of clay, jade or wood to help the deceased during this long journey of nine arduous trials. Most importantly, the person was given a dog to guide the way across the river and reach the final resting place of Mictlán with offerings for its ruler Mictlantecuatl. This clarifies why sculptures such as Mia’s Dog were found in graves.

Contemporary Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico and around the world are rooted in the traditions and rituals honoring the dead in Mesomerica 3,000 years ago. In Mesoamericans' cyclical concept of the universe, death was seen as integral to and ever-present in life. This concept is represented in the Nayarit House Group (47.2.37) here at Mia. Since no evidence existed of the ancient Nayarit living in two-story houses, many scholars concluded that the sculpture expresses a belief that life and death exist in close proximity by showing the living taking part in their daily activities on the upper level of the house, just as the dead are doing on the lower level. This sculpture had been placed in an ancient grave along with other offerings including food and drink to keep the living and the dead closely connected.

Several years ago, I read a verse placed on an ofrenda (an altar of offerings) that best reveals this warm and intimate connection between life and death:

"I’ll take you in my arms and you’ll feel my caresses.

We’ll dance your whole life through until the day that I kiss you.”

From my translation of:

En mis manos te tomaré y sabrás de mis caricias

Bailaremos toda la vida hasta que te bese ese día.”

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