Humans are curious, which is why civilizations have advanced to today's technology-driven society. Death is a mystery that humans cannot solve. We cannot definitively say there is life after death, and as such, civilizations and religions have rituals and faiths to help cope with death. The early peoples of Mexico believed that death merely passed the decedent on to a new life. Today, Mexico still honors this belief, and its dead, with El Dia de Muertos, which is the Day of the Dead.
The Day of the Dead is celebrated from November 1 through November 2. The Day of the Dead is not a macabre celebration, although it might sound so. Rather, the Day of the Dead is a time when the people of Mexico stop their daily lives to celebrate their departed loved ones. They honor the people who have moved on to the after life, which is a lovely gesture, just like leaving flowers on a grave.
The Day of the Dead is a colorful celebration, and two places in Mexico are famous when it comes to celebrating their deceased: Mixquic and Janitzio. San Andres Mixquic is a small suburb of Mexico City in the borough of Tlahuac. Mixquic means "in mesquite" in English. The city of Janitzio sits on top of a hill on the Isla de Janitzio. Janitzio means "where it rains" in English, and the city can only be reached by boat.
Thousands of people go to Mixquic to celebrate the Day of the Dead annually, as the community considers it the most important celebration of the year. The community hosts both quiet and boisterous celebrations for their dead. The festivities are almost like Mardi Gras, and include plays and poetry readings, processions, concerts and dancing.
A huge part of the Day of the Dead celebration is the "ofrenda" alter. Ofrenda means "offering." Plates, utensils and hand-embroidered napkins and tablecloths are purchased and made prior to the celebrations to be used only for the loved one's ofrenda. Mixquic's schoolteachers and students arrange large and small ofrendas -- many with special themes -- and place them on display for visitors to enjoy. Graves are also cleaned and repaired prior to the Day of the Dead.
A key pre-Day of the Dead ritual is to place a large paper lantern in the shape of a star over the front doorway. Families usually do this in the middle of October, and the star remains over the door until November 3. Celebrants believe that the star lantern helps the dead find their way back home. The lanterns give the guiding light, and cempoalxochitl blooms are planted in fields surrounding Mixquic to add a specific fragrance to the air associated with the Day of the Dead.
On October 30, families place ofrendas for their dead in the home. They place offerings on the ofrendas, such as food (usually a special glazed bread called "roscas rosas"), flowers, containers of water and salt, candles and incense, and pictures of their loved ones. Ofrendas to children include toys, as well. The door is then opened to invite the dead into the home. Of course, the living also visit from October 31 to November 2 to celebrate the Day of the Dead with their family and friends.
The Day of the Dead celebrations are broken down into two days: day one is for children while day two for adults. Church bells begin ringing at midnight on October 31, representing the arrival of the departed children's souls. The morning of November 1, families place breakfast on the ofrenda for their returning children. Families also make a trail to the ofrenda using white "alheli" flowers, representing the purity of the child's soul. Deceased children are believed to visit until the middle of the day on November 1, and then it is time for the deceased adults to arrive.
The adult celebration begins at night on November 1 and is filled with festival activities, including a symbolic funeral procession to the local graveyard. At 7 p.m., the church rings its bell again and living children go to each home carrying bells and singing. Much like Halloween in the United States, the children are rewarded at the door with a treat. Treats include candy, fruit, or tamales.
Families decorate the graves of their loved ones on the morning of November 2. Most graves are decorated with flowers and candles. In many cases, the families pull the petals off of the flowers and make pictures with them on the graves. The church bell rings in the "Alumbrada" at 8 p.m. During this time, the church dims it lights and church's cemetery glows from thousands of burning candles and incense.
The celebration in Janitzio is much the same as the celebration in Mixquic. Janitzio citizens also begin to prepare for the Day of the Dead early. Vendors flock to the city's square to sell figures, bright with color and often made of sugar, that represent death. The same bright orange cempoalxochitl flowers are sold at local markets.
Instead of roscas rosas bread, bakers in Janitzio prepare a celebratory bread called "Pan de Muerto." This bread is made with the traditional ingredients of flour, butter, sugar, eggs, and yeast, with orange peel and anise added to give the bread a unique sweetness. Bakers add strips of dough to the top of the bread to make it look like bones. There is a also a dough teardrop added.
Janitzio is predominantly Catholic, so mass is celebrated at the local church at 6 a.m. on November 1. After mass, the women and children clean and decorate the tombs of the children in the local cemetery. Arches, that were decorated for each child after their death are brought to the cemetery, accompanied by musicians marching with the families. The celebration for the children stays at the burial ground until nightfall, when the celebration for the adults begins.
Dancing is the primary way Janitzio celebrates its Day of the Dead. Folk dances, such as Danza de los Viejitos, which means Dance of the Old Men, and the Pescado Blanco, the dance of the White Fish, are performed. Fishermen also go out in their with torches to light the way to the island for the dead. The Janitzio residents believe the dead arrive at midnight. Just like Mixquic, the church bell tolls at midnight to guide the dead back to Janitzio.
The tenderness of the ceremonies is something everyone could learn from. Death might be the end of a person's life, but that does not mean the person is gone forever. The Day of the Dead brings family and friends together to remember those they have lost. That, alone, brings the dead back to life, so to speak. It could be argued that the Day of the Dead has an inaccurate name, because it really is a celebration of people's lives.