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The Meaning of Day of the Dead

by Andrea Titzer

Day of the Dead is one of the most famous Mexican celebrations. It is well-known for its deep meaning or Mexicans’ relationship to death, for its costumes, seen in animated movies such as Coco) or in a few action movie scenes (in the James bond series’ Spectre). Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a national celebration day in Mexico.

October 31st, November 1st or 2nd?

The Day of the Dead honors the dead every year on November 2nd. This tradition took root in pre-Hispanic times, although today it also incorporates elements of Catholicism. This day is linked to Dia de Todos Santos (Day of All Saints) celebrated on November 1st.  It is said that children’s’ souls arrive that day and the adults’ arrive the following morning. According to the Catholic tradition, All Saints’ Day is where all those who died without being blessed or died at an early age are remembered.

Have you heard of Mictecacihuatl?

The origin of the tradition comes from the pre-Hispanic beliefs that an immortal soul lives inside each human being, and that it continues to exist after death. According to this tradition, the soul needs tools and food to continue its journey in the dead’s world. Therefore, Mayas and Aztecs celebrated the souls who left the bodies. They kept skulls as a symbol of death and rebirth. It was a day dedicated to the god Mictecacihuatl, also known as the the god of death. It was celebrated in August. But the whole celebration lasted a month and was a way to remember the dead and to celebrate children. When the European settlers came to America, they converted natives to Catholicism.  They changed the dates to November so it would coincide with All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day.

Day of the Dead Symbols

Dia de los Muertos celebrates dead relatives with altars composed of at least two levels and where each element has a different meaning. Two-level altars represent heaven and earth. Three-level ones represent heaven, earth and underworld, or the Holy Trinity.

The most elaborate altar has seven levels representing all the steps the soul must go through to rest in peace. The lower level is composed of flowers, seeds or fruit forming a cross. A picture of the deceased person is at the second level, while their favorite dishes and fruits are placed on the third one. At the fourth level, bread is offered to the soul. Salt is placed as a symbol of purification at the third level from the top so the soul won’t be corrupted during its trip. The second highest level represents purgatory, and finally, at the highest level, an image of a saint protecting the family overlooks the altar.

Candles, incense, glasses of water, fruit, chocolate, sweet food, flowers, alcohol or other food are placed all over the altar. Candles and incense are said to guide the souls. The colors symbolize mourning and purity. The flowers represent the connection between the underworld and ours.

But it looks like a party!

This time of the year, families go to the cemeteries to clean the graves and decorate them with candles and flowers guiding souls to their homes. The most widespread flowers are called Flor de Muertos (Dead’s flower) or “cempazuchitl” in Zapotec, which are Tagetes erecta, a variety of marigold. In some regions, people spend the night in the cemetery praying with their families. In the Oaxacan region, gathering at the cemeteries are lively affairs: families have a picnic and play their departed relative’s favorite music. Taco and balloon vendors wander and sell in the cemetery.

Indeed, Day of the Dead in a Oaxacan cemetery looks like a party: colors, music, food, drink. Mexicans take to heart not only remembering their loved ones but also celebrating them. 


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