Case Study

The Day of the Dead: Mexican Memorial Traditions

By Elizabeth M. Holland

Like other Catholics, Mexicans remember their dead on All Souls' Day celebrated each year on November 2. (All Saints' Day, the day commemorating saints who have joined God in heaven, is celebrated on November 1.) It is believed that the dead come back to earth on All Souls' Day and that the living should pray so that their dead relatives can shorten their stay in purgatory and enter heaven. All Souls' Day, also known as "The Day of the Dead," is a major cultural event which reflects Catholic as well as ancient Aztec customs and beliefs.

Much of the day and those preceding it are spent in the cemetery repairing, cleaning and decorating the graves. Families construct home altars decorated with photographs of dead relatives, food, flowers and alcoholic beverages. Specific foods are prepared including calabaza en tacha, a preserve made from pumpkin, sugarcane, haws, spices, and brown sugar; and pan de muerto or "bread of the dead" decorated with "bones" made from the dough. A variety of other dishes are prepared according to regional traditions. Spiced with chili and vegetables, these foods are placed in black ceramic bowls as an act of mourning.

Calaveras de azucar are special treats prepared for All Souls' Day. Shaped like human skulls, they are decorated with colored paper. Each is marked with a name, and recalls images of the ancient Aztec zompantlis--stone structures where the skulls of sacrificed humans were exhibited. On All Souls' Day it is customary to purchase calaveras de azucar marked with your own or a friend's name. These are given as gifts.

Poets and artists prepare "skulls"--verses with cartoon skeletons that satirize death. Smiling skeletons adorn pottery and masks. Toy skeletons play musical instruments, ride horses, drive vehicles, dance with one another, and maintain the idea that dead souls continue their activities in the living world. The idea of mocking death and treating it with humor baffles some, but for Mexicans it is simply an acceptance of the end of the life-cycle.

Although Day of the Dead observances in the United States are more restrained than in Mexico, many of the traditions continue. Perhaps the most vital is the production of coronas (artificial flower wreaths) used for decorating the graves. in fact, there are over 100 professional wreath makers in the border town of Nogales, Arizona.

Starting in September, women who make coronas begin accepting orders. Although fresh and plastic flower arrangements are available, paper flowers are much more popular. The paper flower craft was originally brought to Mexico from East Asia. In addition to paper, aluminum tabs from drinking cans, bottle cap liners, soda straws, six-pack rings and Styrofoam egg cartons have been used to create the flowers.

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