While the topic of death carries feelings of sorrow and loss, some cultures have found ways of making peace with this final stage of life and honoring those who have passed on. One particular tradition which is celebrated in Central America is Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). You may have heard of Dia de los Muertos from the popular Disney movie “Coco,” which takes place during this holiday. Dia de los Muertos is a two-day festival held on November 1st and 2nd, however despite being situated so close to Halloween, the two are actually unrelated in origin. During this Latin holiday, people pay tribute to those who have died and look at death with an optimistic lens, not as something to be afraid of.
Dia de Los Muertos is frequently associated with Mexico, however, it is observed widely throughout Central America and even in the U.S in places where there are large Latino populations such as Los Angeles. There are so many traditions and customs related to this holiday. For example, families generally create altars for their deceased family members. They fill them with photos, Marigold flowers, food offerings, candles and some of the favorite items of the departed.
Artisans (and children) often decorate sugar skulls with bright colored frosting and place them on their alters. However, the symbolism of skulls actually goes way back to the Aztec culture where they were a tribute to the goddess of death, Mictecacihuatl who was often represented as a skeleton decorated with flowers.
Part of the reason this holiday is celebrated so joyfully is due to the idea that the dead would take offense to a somber and grief-filled commemoration. It is believed that during these two days the dead come back to share in the festivities with their loved ones. Even though Dia de Los Muertos is about honoring death, it is also about embracing life and its fleeting nature. People laugh, dance, and eat with one another. They are thankful for each other’s presence and thankful for the impact that those who have died had on their lives.
This type of holiday is not confined to Central America or those of Latin descent, other cultures which also celebrate similar holidays honoring death include:
- Obon, the Festival of the Dead is celebrated in Japan with lanterns, bonfires and flowers.
- In the Chinese culture, there are actually several holidays commemorating the dead. There is an entire month called, “ghost month” where the dead are believed to come back and there is also a “hungry ghost festival”, Zhongyuan Festival.
- Voodoo festival, Fet Gede, is celebrated in Haiti by those who practice Voodoo with beeswax candles and flowers to welcome back the dead.
- During the Pchum Ben festival Cambodians offer food to their dead relatives as a way of giving back.
Even Halloween stemmed from the pagan holiday Samhain which was celebrated to remember the dead!
It seems to be a cross cultural phenomenon, taking time to honor those who have passed away and remembering that death is not necessarily the end.