Dia de los Muertos – with a taste of tequila…

October 31, 2010 — Leave a comment

Dying is horrible! For all concerned. It’s a terrible time, and while I appreciate we all have to cope and mourn in our own way, I don’t think we do it very well sometimes – the celebrating the life part of it I mean. Which is why I find the Mexican custom of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) particularly appealing.

On first arriving in Texas I was alarmed at the proliferation of paintings and pictures of gaudily dressed skulls and skeletons, complete with mustaches and Frida Kahloesque brows that appeared around this time of year. I found it a little macabre but the more I read about it, and after a trip to San Antonio two hundred and something miles west of Houston and a city with a heavy Latino influence, I became rather enamoured of the idea.

For two days every year, November first and second, time is spent remembering loved ones. The first day is charmingly called Dia de los Angelitos or Dia le los Innocentes and as the names imply is focused on children, the innocents. The second day is for adults.

The custom bares testimony to Mexico’s Aztec and Meso-American heritage. Dia de los Muertos was originally celebrated in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, August, and was a month-long celebration. It was believed that the life being lived was only a dream and that with death they would truly awaken. A concept that would certainly take away the element of fear felt by many with the very real possibility that death was imminent in those pre-penicillin days.

With the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, mainly Catholic, came attempts to end the rituals using skulls to symbolise death, and rebirth, which were considered sacrilegious. In a compromise worthy of all politicians, the celebrations were moved to coincide with the Christian events of All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day – the first two days in November. A celebration certainly but not so vibrant.

During Dia de los Muertos cemeteries become the centre of all festivities as families and friends await the arrival of their loved one’s souls. Toys are laid on the children’s gravesites, and bottles of tequila, mezcal or another favoured tipple on the adult graves. All will have been cleared and cleaned for the occasion, and to make space for other trinkets, sugar skulls with the names of the dead engraved on the forehead, and Mexican marigolds which are said to attract the souls of the dead.

Pillow and rugs are also brought so that the visiting souls may rest after their long journey and, it has to be said, to make a day of feasting and drinking more comfortable for the living, who share their ofrendas (offerings) with each other as they pray together, and share stories of the soul whose grave they are clustered around. If there happens to be a poet amongst the gathering, he might well have written a brief poem, calaveras (skull), for the occasion. It is two days of celebration and laughter focused every year on loved ones who have died.

So often at funerals, we, in the West, mourn in a restrained and respectful mood, speaking in hushed tones at the gravesite or worse, in silence as the curtain hides the coffin about to be cremated. The prayers being intoned never last as long as that slowly drawn wall of gauze. We mourn what we have lost rather than celebrate what we were so lucky to have. And we only do it at the funeral. Very few of us actually set aside two days a year to reminisce, happily.

There is no such thing as a joyous death, there is far too much pain associated with it. But we can certainly celebrate a life that was held dear. We are far too sombre sometimes, all that black is very dreary and doesn’t tell of the joys, the vibrancy, the excitement of lives well spent.

So today because most of those dear to me who have died are scattered around the world, literally, and I am unable to sit in a cemetery, I’m going to spend my time remembering their stories in vivid Technicolor, and I will raise a glass to their memories.

But it won’t be tequila!

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