My fear of death has always been an unchanging part of my life. Lying in bed at night, I would try to imagine what it would feel like to be dead, to cease to exist, what it would feel like to not feel anything. I spent countless sleepless nights, mentally going through everything that could take my loved ones away from me. My fear of death was crippling, leaving behind tear stains and a heart that beat too fast, always anticipating bad news.
Ironically, I ended up in Mexico for my year-long exchange program. Known for their reverence of the dead and death itself, the Mexicans incorporated my paralysing fear into every little aspect of their lives – from the Goddess Santa Muerte to dressed-up skeleton statues in amusement parks, from Frida Kahlo’s stunning but heart-wrenching art to heavy discussions on the subject in school – everywhere I looked, there was living death.
The festival of Dia de Los Muertos or Day of the Dead only took this to another level. It was a tradition that grew on me quite easily. My incurable fear of death did not stop me from admiring those who welcomed it with open arms.The idea of the Day of the Dead is not to be sad over death. It is to celebrate life.
It was my host mother who first opened my eyes to a different perspective on death: “Death is the only thing that you know is going to happen for sure,” she said, “It’s the one thing that everyone in the world has in common.”
In the 2000s, with the introduction of American traditions in the Mexican world, the Day of the Dead began to lose popularity. Halloween was suddenly everywhere, and what followed, interestingly, was a people’s movement to reinstate the Day of the Dead, and shed light on its importance in Mexican culture.The Day of the Dead is not, as the Americans say, ‘Mexican Halloween.’ It comes from more ancient times, holds deeper meanings and is the epitome of indigenous Mexican culture itself.
a reproduction of the famous mayan ball game, xcaret, playa del carmen.
Centuries ago, it was the Mayans who played a famous ball game that lasted two weeks. The catch? The team that won the game had the honour of being beheaded and sacrificed to the Gods above. The Day of the Dead too, was originally, a day of sacrifice—a day of creating death, rather than just honouring it. The Spanish colonists found this tradition barbaric, and that was how Dia de Los Muertos became what it is today.
Celebrated on the 1st and 2nd of November, the Day of the Dead is a time for departed souls to visit the Earth once again and spend time with their loved ones. The 1st of November is to remember the souls of children gone too soon, and the 2nd is the day for adult lives lost. Families set up altars with names and pictures of their dead loved ones, prepare their favourite food and create a path leading up to the altar, using the flower cempasúchil or marigold – also known as flower of the dead. There is colour everywhere, and delicacies like Pan de Muertos (Bread of the Dead) fill every bakery.
In the state of Quintana Roo, I saw my host mother decorate her altar with care, uncovering old photos and fondly remembering fading memories. In other states, such as Yucatan, families visit their departed loved ones in cemeteries, taking their skeletons out of coffins and cleaning them. They have picnics in the cemetery, in the presence of these departed souls. There are variations of the festival in several countries – the Indian Pitrupaksha, for example, has a similar idea.
I spent my Day of the Dead at a famous festival in the park Xcaret. With traditionally painted faces, in all black, my family and I walked around the park, visiting different shows – from the traditional Maya music show, to a cemetery with over 300 stunning replicas of graves, and lastly, a grand showcase of the famous Maya ball game in an amphitheatre.
grave replicas in xcaret, playa del carmen.
Coffee, the sick cat in my host family, seemed determined to outlive the Day of the Dead. “We thought we’d have his picture on the altar this year, but he’s not giving up,” my host mother told me. “He cannot move at all, cannot make a sound – but he continues to struggle.”
A few days after Dia de Los Muertos, my host mother took a beautiful picture of him, face raised, blue eyes blearily looking at the camera. “For next year,” she said, and I understood.
I understood that one year, you could be celebrating Day of the Dead, tearfully remembering the ones you’ve lost, and the next year, you could be one of the photographs on the altar. The idea is enough to keep me awake at night, but I understand.