What is Day of the Dead about?
With life, inevitably arrives death, the great
immovable mountain of the human landscape.
Yet despite death's common claim, societies have developed their
own particular ways of grieving, remembering, and healing. Each
year, at November's beginning, we may share in one of the most
dynamic cultural traditions offering a salve for death's sting.
El Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is practiced
across the Americas, a time to remember our ancestors,
beloved, and friends. Like Christmas and many other holidays,
Day of the Dead has multiple points of origin. The deepest roots,
however, reach back to ancient Mexico, to the Aztec belief
that the dead could at times revisit the living. Aztecs held
special rites when they suspected that the facade fell away between
the spirit world and our own.
After Hernán Cortés and the conquistadors conquered the Aztec
empire in 1521, European colonialists attempted to end
Indigenous traditions they thought violated Christian orthodoxies.
But because this Aztec cultural practice of death paralleled the
Catholic All Saints Day and All Souls Day, it was tolerated and
quietly survived through the centuries.
Today, Día de los Muertos is celebrated in many ways, varying
regionally. A shared practice is to make an altar laid out
with photos, flowers, candles, and the favorite things of a person
to be honored. Commonly, accompanying the altars are parades,
music, dance, and feasts. What is so wonderfully unique about this
holiday is that it is a joyous occasion; it is not a funeral though
it often takes place in graveyards, but an embrace of death in the
rush of our ever receding lives.
Several years ago, my museum accepted an altar by the local
Chicano artist Jerry Vigil, who was dubbed the "Dean of the
Dead" in 2005. This piece conveys that contradictory mix of the
macabre and merry that epitomizes Day of the Dead. The altar stands
about two feet high, painted black and covered in illustrated
skulls, their jaws yawning in laughter. At the heart of the altar
is an old black-and-white portrait of a serious man with a
thick mustache and three-piece suit. Surrounding the photo are
decorated sugar skull sculptures and paper marigold flowers, both
of which present Aztec symbolisms of death. A banner arching
above the altar reads "Jose Guadalupe Posada." Jerry recently told
me how he chose to honor Posada, an artist who more than a century
ago began designing the dancing skeleton imagery that predominate
the modern celebration's iconography.
This exuberant altar highlights the latest adaptation of Day of
the Dead -- a shift to using these traditional crafts to make
art forms that speak across different cultures. For no matter
what your ethnic background or religious creed, all of us can
understand the desire to respect our ancestors and reflect on our
mortality. And, this is why we collected Jerry's fantastic piece,
and perhaps why in recent years we have seen ever more public Day
of the Dead festivities in schools and communities around the Rocky
Mountains and beyond it.
Because while the language of Day of the Dead is
passed down from Aztec and Catholic traditions about death,
this day nevertheless says something universal about
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