As practised by the indigenous communities of Mexico, el Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) commemorates the transitory return to Earth of deceased relatives and loved ones. The festivities take place each year at the end of October to the beginning of November. This period also marks the completion of the annual cycle of cultivation of maize, the country’s predominant food crop.
Day of the dead origins
The roots of the Day of the Dead, celebrated in contemporary Mexico and among those of Mexican heritage in the United States and around the world, go back some 3,000 years, to the rituals honoring the dead in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. The Aztecs and other Nahua people living in what is now central Mexico held a cyclical view of the universe, and saw death as an integral, ever-present part of life.
Upon dying, a person was believed to travel to Chicunamictlán, the Land of the Dead. Only after getting through nine challenging levels, a journey of several years, could the person’s soul finally reach Mictlán, the final resting place. In Nahua rituals honoring the dead, traditionally held in August, family members provided food, water and tools to aid the deceased in this difficult journey. This inspired the contemporary Day of the Dead practice in which people leave food or other offerings on their loved ones’ graves, or set them out on makeshift altars called ofrendas in their homes.
Día de los Muertos in Mexico
Families facilitate the return of the souls to Earth by laying flower petals, candles and offerings along the path leading from the cemetery to their homes. The deceased’s favourite dishes are prepared and placed around the home shrine and the tomb alongside flowers and typical handicrafts, such as paper cut-outs.
Great care is taken with all aspects of the preparations, for it is believed that the dead are capable of bringing prosperity (e.g. an abundant maize harvest) or misfortune (e.g. illness, accidents, financial difficulties) upon their families depending on how satisfactorily the rituals are executed.
The dead are divided into several categories according to cause of death, age, sex and, in some cases, profession. A specific day of worship, determined by these categories, is designated for each deceased person. This encounter between the living and the dead affirms the role of the individual within society and contributes to reinforcing the political and social status of Mexico’s indigenous communities.
The Day of the Dead celebration holds great significance in the life of Mexico’s indigenous communities. The fusion of pre-Hispanic religious rites and Catholic feasts brings together two universes, one marked by indigenous belief systems, the other by worldviews introduced by the Europeans in the sixteenth century.
Remember that El Día de los Muertos is not, as is commonly thought, a Mexican version of Halloween, though the two holidays do share some traditions, including costumes and parades.