November 1, 2011
The Day of the Dead, or Día de Los Muertos, is celebrated in Mexico and Latin American countries, and around the world, on November 1st and 2nd. It is a time when families come together, not to mourn the dead, but to celebrate the lives of departed family and honor their ancestors. Ofrendas, a kind of altar or exhibit, are arranged with loved ones' photos and mementos and even favorite foods. Skeletons, candied sugar skulls and sweet breads are included in the ofrenda. Here we have collected our IgoUgo members’ impressions of their own encounter with The Day of the Dead as they travel the world.
JesusW: “Each beginning of November the cemeteries are visited by large crowds, all the people attend to wash and repair the tombs of their loved ones. It almost seems like a picnic as people that still follow the tradition bring food and drinks to honor the departed ones. In some cases they even hire a mariachi band or a guitar trio to play the song that the deceased one loved to listen.”
La Paz, Bolivia
SeenThat: “The strangest festival in this journal, the Day of the Dead is a syncretism between an ancient local festival honoring the dead and the Christian day of All Saints. The main activities of the festival are located in the General Cemetery of La Paz.
The gruesome part of the festival is that in the past the dead used to be dug out of their graves; nowadays only the skulls are used – usually they are stored within the people’s homes during the year and brought to the cemetery especially for the occasion. Then, they are dressed up with various garments and offered foods, drinks and cigarettes. If a skull is not available, a family’s member dresses up as the dead and enacts him during the day, talking with the family about the last year and giving counseling.
gorboduc: All over the city of Puebla, the shops displayed sweets made of white sugar or amaranth seed, molded into the shapes of skulls and decorated with shiny foil and brightly colored icing. The graves in the graveyards were nearly hidden by banks of deep orange marigolds (the flower of the dead) and fuchsia coxcomb and were outlined with votive candles. Many shops, restaurants, and public areas had altars standing in them -- altars to the dead, festooned with lacy tissue paper cutouts of skulls and bones, decorated with more marigolds and candles, and piled high with pan de muerto, sugar skulls, fruits, religious art, and the deceased person's favorite foods and beverages. Sometimes the altars commemorated a concept -- we found a political altar for the death of justice -- or a celebrity, as my friend found a touching altar dedicated to Christopher Reeve.
The altars were stunning. Rising to the top of the 20-foot-high ceilings of local houses, they were swathed in white satin and decorated with statues and lithographs of angels and lacy white paper cuts.
Though it may seem a bit strange to Americans and Europeans (it did to me, at any rate), the Day of the Dead is a happy occasion, when families go to the graves of their loved ones, decorate them with flowers and candles, and feast on the departed person's favorite dishes. The Day of the Dead is also a time for hospitality -- you are supposed to bring a small gift, like a candle or a few coins, to each altar that you visit.
San Antonio, Texas
Idler: At first glance, Dia de los Muertos displays may seem garish or simply macabre, with skeletons, skulls, coffins, and votive candles vying for position on the ofrenda or offering for the day. But look more closely and it becomes clear that these offerings are an enticement to the spirits of the departed to return to the earth.
I saw a number of ofrendas for Dia de Los Muertos while in San Antonio, including a very poignant one dedicated to troops stationed in Iraq at the Institute of Texan cultures. What impressed me most about the displays I saw was that unlike Halloween, Dia de Los Muertos is still relatively untainted by commercialism. While many of the displays may seem whimsical, there’s a reflective side to this distinctive celebration.
piensalo: If you're fortunate enough to be in town at this time, make a special point to visit the altars set up in galleries and shops. Each one is prepared with special remembrances of the person to whom it is dedicated: an artist's altar bears paints, a palette, his favorite brand of tequila, a plate heaped with his preferred sweet breads, his photo, cut tissue paper decorations in deep purple and hot pink, the orange flowers traditional for this day, and other personal amulets. After you've investigated altars, make the trip to the cemetery west of town. Family members have spent days cleaning and decorating graves, with elaborate floral wreathes, crepe paper streamers, fresh flowers, and offerings of food and drink for the deceased. Take time to wander with respect around the small cemetery. Some families will have spent the night at the grave of a loved one, often eating and drinking in the family member's memory, reminiscing the night away. Sometimes there are meandering mariachis, ready to play the deceased's favorite songs during the night. Tequila, beer, and brandy flow freely in toasts to the one who has gone before, and many prayers float up to heaven in his or her name.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
LeslieT: Dia de Los Muertos in San Miguel was a treat for the eyes! Lovely bright golden marigolds everywhere, beautiful artistic altars in doorways, courtyards, cemeteries, on the streets... They were both touching as a tribute to the dearly departed and as an expression of art itself. And those wonderful brightly-colored paper flags hanging everywhere!
Shady Ady: November 2nd in Ecuador saw one of the biggest annual celebrations as whole country stopped work to celebrate the 'Day of the Dead'. I was informed that this day of celebration is practiced throughout the world, which surprised me slightly as I have never heard of this before in my life. In Ecuador, especially the Central Sierra region where I live, they take this celebration of the dead to a completely different level. Not content with flowers and prayers they turn all cemeteries in to one big party, surrounding the graves with tables, chairs, food, music and most importantly alcohol.
For the entire day they also leave an empty seat, food and alcohol out for where their beloved deceased can sit if they fancy joining the party. It is the day of the dead after all!
Posted by Nik’sMom (Terre Grilli)