By Claudia Rodriguez

My cognizance of death developed through the day of the dead. As a child, I lived in Michoacan, Mexico, where every first and second of November we would dedicate ourselves to honoring the dead. My mother and I would stroll along open-air markets gathering Aztec marigolds, sugar skulls, papel picado (perforated tissue paper), fruit and pan de muerto (sweet bread) for the altars. Candles were an essential part of our trip, necessary for the night as we sat by the tomb of our dead. There was nothing more exciting as a child than the vivid colors and endless possibilities of sugar consumption that day of the dead represented. As nightfall got a bit closer, I would begin packing our decorations, cleaning materials and food for our time at the cemetery. I would leave a couple of candles out for our navigation through the crowded cemetery. When we would arrive, we would begin by clearing out the tomb of debris and clutter that had accumulated over the previous year. We would scrub the tomb clean and wipe it down with cloths. Then, we would begin decorating the tomb with our offerings, reminiscing on the dead and their lifetime. We did this until early dusk, or until the candles ran out (hardly ever the case, though) and then we would head home. Fatigue would usually get to me first, and so I would lie down on the lap of my grandmother and fade off to sleep, enveloped in the words exchanged around me by my family members. I partook in this procession until we left Mexico for the U.S in 1994.

 © Shutterstock/Suriel Ramzal
© Shutterstock/Suriel Ramzal

Dia de los Muertos is without a doubt one of the most recognized festivities of Mexican culture outside of Mexico. The altars, the sugar skulls, the face make-up and the „embrace“ of death have an undeniable appeal to foreigners. Its pre-Hispanic origins alongside its Christian synchronization to All Saints Day make day of the dead an obvious representation of Mexico’s history. Similarly, considering we live in a globalized world, it is not surprising that day of the dead has extended beyond the Mexican South. As much as this holiday is loved and appreciated by those who do not have a direct relation to it, it is nevertheless a misunderstood celebration synonymously linked to Halloween. There are ways to partake in the day of the dead celebration that are not linked to „dressing up“ and result in appropriative, stereotyping or demeaning wear to an important holiday. The perspectives day of dead carries are nevertheless important even to those who did not grow up celebrating it and are ultimately what distinguishes it from Halloween.

Growing up, day of the dead was every child’s dream: sugar, late nights and no school. The lack of comprehension of what death meant and how it affects us had not yet revealed itself to me. As I got older, however, the actual meaning of the holiday set in. This primarily came through my annoyance at the holiday’s mainstream comparison to Halloween. I attributed this to seemingly various correlations: dressing up, candy and the dates they fall on. Unlike Halloween however, where people seek to imitate the immortal, the day of the dead is about acceptance of human mortality, and approaches death through a satirical perspective. This is the biggest misunderstanding I find when it comes to day of the dead celebrations outside of Mexico. Wearing skull make up is not representative of wanting to be death, but acknowledging that ultimately we all carry the potential of death. Similarly, the sugar skulls are a reminder that death is sweet when the time for it has come. Although it may sound like a grim outlook, it is nevertheless a coping mechanism for something we must all face.

The history of day of the dead can be traced to pre-Hispanic times where it was celebrated in southern Mexico by various indigenous cultures such as the Mexica, Totonaca, Maya and Purepecha. In Michoacan, where I have the most experience with the celebration, the Purepecha partake in a three-day celebration on the island of Janitzio, Patzcuaro. Performances like „Danza de los Viejitos,“ or, dance of the old men, take place during this time.

When night falls, fishermen begin to adorn the lake with their large nets on other side, and candles toward the front. Like other vicinities, cemetery visits are in order, as well as cleaning, decorating and reflecting at the tomb side. Unlike the animated visits my family and I took, however, others would opt for a more solemn excursion comprised of silence, tears, kneeling and praying in Purepecha dialect. Due to a high influx of curious tourists, the Purepecha make it clear what is and is not permissible during this time. Drinking, associations to Halloween, witches or a „party for the living“ are frowned upon.

After the arrival of the Spanish, Day of the Dead is said to have shifted dates from the beginning of summer to mid-autumn, in order to align with All Saints Day. This was done in part to incorporate Pagan holidays into Christian ones as a means to convert the unfaithful. Similar holidays throughout Europe include Totensonntag in Germany’s Evangelical churches. That also takes place in November and similarly, Samhain celebrated in Gaelic cultures at the end of each harvest is the precursor to Halloween. A Pagan holiday importantly aligned to the changes of seasons is understandably something European cultures were presently aware of due to the many deaths that could occur in the coming winter. Their honoring of the dead came in the form of seeking wisdom and advice from their antecedents in order to grant them the wisdom to survive winter. The notions surrounding the dead rising were in part owed to the chaos that ruled these months. The level of uncertainty as to where death would strike had people wearing masks in order to blend in with the spirits and demons that wandered in darkness. Pagans carved faces into vegetables such a turnips and placed them outside their homes for protection. They believed that the head, carrier of the soul, represented through the vegetables would protect them from „evil spirits.“ Similarly, in many other cultures, the celebration of the changing seasons—the darkness, cold and chaos that reigns—is recognized and marked as a means of coping and seeking out the knowledge for this human condition which ultimately leads to rebirth and renewal.

This celebration and honoring of the dead is therefore not exclusive to Mexico or Meso-American cultures. In Mexico, however, this symbiosis of Catholicism and Indigenous rites are present in many altars, which contain religious relics such as crosses or rosaries alongside the sugar skulls, and favorite foods of the deceased. This hybridity of influences continues today as seen through the Mexican diaspora in the United States and other places of the world.

There are about 4,000 Mexicans living in Berlin, and their influence is easy to spot. The increasing popularity of Mexican food and iconic Mexican imagery from sugar skulls to wrestling masks and mescal prove this. That being said, divorcing Dia de los muertos from Halloween is one way to commence the procession. The aforementioned principles that day of the dead represents such as acceptance and celebration of human mortality, honoring the dead and reflecting on the phases of life we all go through is a form of partaking in the holiday. Is it culturally appropriative to paint your face like a sugar skull? I would say yes, if the intention behind celebrating stems from a purely visual perspective. Another option would be to build altars. Altars intended to celebrate Dia de los muertos do not have to mimic altars in Mexico or be adorned with Mexican relics, but rather each item should hold a significant value to this process of acceptance, reflection and respect towards death. An exhibit I attended a couple of years back, “Neon Virgins,” brought some of these concepts into play via individually created altars. Plastic rhinestone covered babies, Pokémon, make-up, hair clips and other items of significance to the artist adorned these altars. This inspired many who attended to build their own altars and put a contemporary twist on an ancient tradition without posing disrespect. Below is some information on how to do the same if Day of the dead interests you.

How to build an altar at Home

Traditionally there are two kinds of altars, those with levels and those without. The ones with levels usually comprise of one, three or seven tiers representative of the heavens, earth and the underworld. Each item is placed where you as the altar creator see it most fitting. Some of the items brought to the home altars include the following:

  • A picture of the dead and their belongings such as clothes or jewelry.
  • Favorite foods of the deceased, accompanied by seasonal fruits such as clementines or pumpkins. Representative of the changing seasons.
  • Drinks that are both non-alcoholic and alcoholic, like Eierlikör, also know as rompopeare included as a symbol of festivities.
  • Candles, real or plastic LED.
  • Flowers as a symbol of the cycles of life.

A more contemporary altar takes on a more significant approach to events that happened over the previous year, that, with the regression of summer, allow for the initiation of the reflection process to begin. This is an approach that can be taken, should you not wish to make it about someone who is deceased or not have anyone who you can commemorate. All that needs to present on these altars are items of significance throughout your life. Every year I practice this and am glad it was how my conception of death developed.

„Did you make your altar this year?” my mother inquires, but really expects, via video chat. I tilt the camera towards the altar and walk closer, explaining what each item represents. She does the same with hers and proceeds to give my grandmother the same opportunity. They recount stories of the dead and the items present, a 21st century sort of celebration.