Growing up in Chicago, I can recall this holiday being well integrated into my education at an early age. I have always been fascinated with the afterlife as it is just another piece of the human experience.
For many Americans, death is often seen as something to be feared. It is often portrayed in our media and our culture as the ultimate end. Therefore evoking anxiety, despair and panic in many people. Death is seen as something that should be avoided at all costs. Those who have passed away in American society often remain widely neglected, and undervalued. However, not all cultures see death as something to be overlooked. In many parts of the world death is not seen as the end but as the next part of our journey.
El dia de los muertos or day of the dead is a two day long holiday, falling on the first and second days of November. Dia de los muertos is primarily celebrated in the southern and central parts of Mexico. The ideology reflects ancient indigenous beliefs, that life on earth is nothing more than a dream, and it is not until we die that we awaken. Additionally, it is believed that on these days of the year the veil between the living and the dead becomes exceptionally thin. This allows those who have passed into the afterlife to return to Earth to be reunited with their loved ones.
Traditionally dia de los muertos was celebrated by the Aztecs in a month long celebration that took place in July. With the Spanish conquest over the Aztec empire, the festivities were reshaped to fit in with the Catholic calendar. As a result the month long festivities were replaced with a two day long celebration that coordinated with the Catholic all Saints day and all souls day.
Today Day of the Dead celebrations vary based on the region in which they are celebrated. In certain areas in Mexico it is seen as a day of solace, where people clean the graves of the decease. In other parts of Mexico it is seen as a day to celebrate the life of those who are no longer with us, which is sometimes accompanied by a party. The two day long festivities are often separated into day one being primarily focused around the children who have passed over. Day two is mainly for the adults. It is customary for those observing dia de los muertos to make oferendas or altars for those who have passed over. Oferendas almost always contain photos of the decease when they were alive. As well as toys and candy for children who have passed, and the favorite food, drinks and occasionally vices ( tobacco, an alcoholic beverage, marijuana ) for adults who have passed. Candles are lit on and around the oferenda to serve as light to guide the souls back to Earth. Calaveras or (skulls, sometimes made of sugar) are brightly painted and decorated. Pan de muerto (bread of the dead) is a sweet bread that is often made in the days leading up to dia de los muertos often rests on or near a loved one’s oferenda. It is common for people to burn Copal both at the grave site and oferendas to awaken and attract spirits. Marigolds are often seen as the flower of the dia de lose muertos and it is believed that due to their bright color and fragrance they assist with guiding spirits back home. It is custom for families to make oferendas in their homes for loved ones, but to also clean, and decorate the graves of their loved ones on the evening of the first and second of November.
Death is an inevitable part of our existence. It is only in death that we are able to progress into the next life. It is not until we are able to die, that we are permitted to progress into the next phase of growth, the next journey or adventure we were meant to experience. So many wonderful and magical things happen to us after death. I have always wondered if the light at the end of the tunnel people claim to see, when they have near death experiences is actually just another birth canal they are on the verge of emerging from.
At the end of the day, there is no wrong way to celebrate and honor the lives of our ancestors. These practices and rituals vary based on our roots. It is crucial for us to pay our respects to those who have come before us. As well as to give thanks for the lessons, love, wisdom and blessings they have bestowed upon us. Honoring the departed helps us to cope with feelings of loss, sadness and grief. Furthermore, appreciating those that either directly or indirectly contributed to our happiness/ existence is part of what it means to be a conscious individual.
Love and light to all on this magical day, may your loved ones rest easy.