The season of death and dying is here. Autumn brings the end of the year, the end of living things, the end of growth in the cold of winter. October 31, All Hallows’ Eve, Halloween, albeit much altered from its original intent, is a celebration of the end of the harvest but also a recognition of the presence of the dead on earth. Originally, Halloween was the time when ghosts of the dead, along with unholy spirits, were given free rein to roam the earth before they were again confined in Purgatory or in Hell. They had to be confined in anticipation of November 1, the Day of All Hallows, the Holy Ones, the saints in heaven. All Saints is followed by All Souls on November 2, during which we honor the Souls in Purgatory, suffering purification before entry to heaven in the Catholic belief that was once universal in Europe. The season is the last vestige in modern culture of the reality that life and death are two sides of the same coin, that where there is life there must also be death, that the same Creator who created life also created death. The season tells us that we should not ignore death, nor fear it, because it is part of our existence and we cannot avoid it. In our culture, which deludes us into believing that youth and physical beauty are eternal, we don’t pay much heed to this kind of thing anymore.
Our Halloween customs derive from northern Europe, but traditions known as The Days of the Dead, usually the last days of October and first days of November, have come in from lands to the south. These influences are often mistakenly considered to be “Mexican Halloween,” but Halloween and The Days of the Dead are very different celebrations. In Mexico, death is traditionally honored in a much more open fashion than it is here. Death is held in high esteem, in a reverential sense, not in the spooky, haunted sense of Halloween.
Awareness of the dead is typical of a culture that looks to the past, as in Mexico, not of a future-oriented culture as in the U.S. In Mexico, which is strongly mindful of the past, the amalgamation of Iberian Catholicism, full of ancient Greek and Roman roots, with the indigenous religions of the Aztecs, has given rise to a rich tradition known as los Dias de los Muertos, or The Days of the Dead. We enjoy the celebration here in spite of the cultural differences. A manifestation of this in U.S. culture is the creation of “altares,” altars in remembrance of deceased friends or relatives. These are commonly found in art galleries, where they are seen as opportunities for artistic license. In Mexico, altars to the dead are found in many homes. They are sincere tributes to loved ones, not art installations. Portraits of the departed are displayed, and their favorite food, drink, cigarettes, personal items, etc. are laid out in anticipation of their earthly visitations. The intent is to honor the deceased out of love and affection but also from a profound sense of the very thin veil that separates this life from the other life. In some ways, The Days of the Dead resemble American Memorial Day. Families in Mexico go to cemeteries to visit and adorn the tombs and to share meals with the dead. This is something which we should respect.
The veil separating life and death is indeed flimsy. We must realize that we will all soon be dead. What happens then? The Mexican artist, Jose Guadalupe Posada, is famous for his depictions of skeletons behaving as if they were still alive, enjoying all the pleasures of human life–food, drink, fancy clothes, parties, dancing, even sex. Posada’s skulls and bones in the midst of carnal pleasures symbolize the union of life and death. They also warn us of the illusory nature of pleasure. His art has been appropriated by the dominant U.S. culture and is now found everywhere. But his ideas have not. We see the dancing, drunken, fornicating skeletons as just funny art, missing the point of the illusion of human existence and the much more real intimacy of life and death.
The Days of the Dead celebration in U.S. culture is an example of cultural blending, something which always happens when distinct cultures rub against each other, as is the case in this part of the country. This can be good because cross-fertilization like this saves U.S. culture from stagnation. It goes the other way, too. Mexican culture is influenced by American culture. However, the popularity of The Days of the Dead is an appropriation by the American dominant culture of an element from the subordinate Mexican culture. As such, the meaning of the celebration has been altered. Things get changed when cultural elements are removed from their original context. They diverge from their original meanings. They may be trivialized, stripped of serious meaning, made into “kitsch,” becoming pretentious, shallow and gaudy. This is what has happened to The Days of the Dead in the U.S. The sacred meaning of Los Dias de los Muertos has been lost. This sacredness can be understood to be an escape from human rationalism, a journey into a space of intense, passionate, personal religion, a religion not about obeying God but more about one’s relationship with the physical world and simultaneously with the spiritual world. This is a religion of beauty, and definitely not one of fear of death and punishment for sins, but one of love in a space where loved ones await living human beings, who are the soon-to-be dead.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.