This week I have been interviewing local people here in Mexico City about their thoughts about the upcoming Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead). As with most spiritual traditions, people hold varied thoughts and feelings about this celebration. The origins are Pre-Hispanic and were practiced by the indigenous people of this area for over 3000 years, yet for many Mexicans the tradition now may be intertwined with their Catholic faith. For most people, this beautiful tradition is characterized by a playful celebration with death and an opportunity to remember, honor and visit with family and friends who have passed from this life onto the next one. A few of the common traditions include a visit to the Panteón, building an ofrenda, marigolds (cempasúchil or the “flowers of the dead”), pan de muerto and sugar skulls.
A visit to the panteón (the grave of one’s loved ones) on November 2nd is perhaps the most traditional Day of the Dead activity. The family typically will clean the gravesite and decorate it with fresh flowers. Often families will create breathtaking art using flower petals and seeds. This can be a time of complex emotions, ranging from profound and often communal mourning to intense celebratory parties. Families may bring music, food and liquor for this family reunion and will have varied means to remember, honor and show respect to the departed. This can be a powerful way to keep the memory of loved ones alive, to introduce the younger generation to their ancestors as well as to the concept of death. It can also be a way for family members to continue working and renegotiating their relationships with those who have died or to address ongoing issues of loss. For many people, this is a literal opportunity to feel the presence of those they love who are no longer alive and to converse with them. One sad side note, given the importance of this practice for many Mexicans, is that a number of people I spoke with reported that they no longer go to visit the panteón due to concerns about safety and a lack of faith in overall security here in Mexico.
Another typical activity related to the Day of the Dead is for people to construct an ofrenda in their home. This is a type of alter which is decorated with colorful flowers and with items loved by the person who has died. Usually a photo of the person will be placed on the ofrenda along with personal items (e.g. their pipe, glasses, etc). It is also very common to place favorite foods, drinks and other items like mole, tequila, cigarettes, tamales, fruits, or tortillas. Often copal (a sacred type of incense) and candles will be burning. There is also almost always some Pan de Muerto and Calaveras (skeleton imagery, particularly sugar skulls).
Pan de Muerto is a sweet bread that is often covered with bright colored sugars. It is a medium for artful expression itself and can be shaped into many different forms such as skeletons and other death related items. Brightly decorated sugar skulls are also often placed on the ofrenda or grave with the name of a departed soul written on the forehead. Historically, while this bread and other food items were offered to dead, who consumed its aroma, it also provided for the kin of the deceased.
Cempasúchil flowers (marigolds) are found everywhere in Mexico during the Day of the Dead celebrations. The petals are believed to create a path for the souls of family members who have died to follow. In some communities there will be long paths of Cempasúchil petals that create a path from the pantéon to the ofrenda in the family’s home.
The rich and layered traditions linked to the Day of the Dead create numerous possibilities for therapeutic dialogues with Mexican clients. Engaging in some of the rituals associated with this celebration might even be useful to consider as an intervention in some situations. It is just important to keep in mind that, just as sugary marshmallow Peeps sold around Easter do not capture the profound feelings many people may have about Christ’s death and resurrection, the commercialized version of the Day of Dead that many may be familiar with does not capture the deep meaning of this holiday. It should also be remembered that the Day of the Dead and Halloween have completely different origins even if the two sometimes get linked. Perhaps, just be curious and avoid assumptions. As with most things, there is no single story about the Day of the Dead, but it does create an opportunity for profound dialogues about family, national identity, and loss.
In my conversations this week, I have noticed that the holiday creates a context for discussing existential issues like life and death. In regard to death, several comments I heard this week oddly led me to think about the movie The Godfather. There is a scene where Michael Corleone recounts a lesson he learned from his Mafia boss father Don Vito Corleone where he states; "I've learnt many things from my father in this room. He told me ‘Keep your friends close, but enemies closer.’" In some ways this dictum (or dicho in Spanish) captures some themes I have heard about the playful relationship Mexicans often create with death. Several told me that because they are scared of death, they keep this ‘enemy” close to them and by making fun of death and engaging with it more directly, it allows them to keep an eye on death and to take back a little control.
¡Feliz Día de Muertos!
Dr. Jason J. Platt is a Full Professor and the Program Director of the Masters in International Counseling Psychology program at Alliant International University’s Mexico City Campus. He is the founder of the CSPP Spanish Language, Class and Cultural Immersion program and the Certificate in Latin American Family Therapy. In addition to the Mexico programs, Dr. Platt has facilitated immersion education programs in India, Cambodia and Vietnam. His family of seven adopted siblings from five different countries, with varied but often traumatic histories, has invariably influenced his career choices and commitment to being part of research and educational efforts that will better prepare clinicians to work with international and impoverished communities.