Celebrating the dead

The end of October and beginning of November is a time of reflection about the dead – and ultimately the meaning of life.

In many European countries, people visit the graves of their loved ones and light candles in remembrance of them.

Other parts of the world celebrate more exuberantly. Take my birthplace, Mexico, for example.

Last week, we visited the Museum of Ethnography – a museum whose mission is to help us broaden our perspective of the world.

There was an exhibition celebrating Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).

This celebration is thousands of years old: originating from the Aztec times, it has adapted and mixed with Catholic traditions so that you can find altars in people’s homes, laden down with offerings, skeletons, photos of the dead and crosses.

One popular figure is La Calavera Catrina (the elegant skull), which depicts an upper class lady, and serves as a reminder that even though we might have pretensions of importance due to riches or class, death is the great equalizer.

The living make exotic skulls out of sugar and in some places in Mexico, they have joyous picnics at the gravesides of the departed.

I like the idea of remembering people who gave meaning to your life while feasting and laughing and remembering the good times with them. After all, this is probably the best way of helping their memory live on.

“Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.” — Saroyan

For more traditions, please visit: My World.

54 responses

  1. Those decorations are FABULOUS!!!!!!!!!!!!
    When I taught at a school with all Hispanic students, this celebration was HUGE!


    November 8, 2010 at 16:46

  2. Fantastic decorations. Born in Mexico? Wow, you have seen many contrasting climates.


    November 8, 2010 at 17:06

  3. I love seeing other culture’s traditions.


    November 8, 2010 at 17:30

  4. Beautiful!!! I love the photo of La Calavera Catrina…and what it stands for!!! Wonderful poem as well!!


    November 8, 2010 at 17:54

  5. Blu

    An interesting post, in France all the graves are tidy and spruced up in time for Toussaint, then huge pots of Chrysanthemums, the flowers for the dead are delivered by the whole family. Rather different to the neglected graves in the UK.


    November 8, 2010 at 18:08

  6. These are quite beautiful .. in a creepy sort of way.


    November 8, 2010 at 18:12

  7. i was reading about this the other day on another blog..what a cool exhibit…we will be making that journey to my MIL grave in a couple weeks…


    November 8, 2010 at 19:03

  8. Marvelous, fascinating post for the day and your photos are so colorful! I had no idea you were born in Mexico! I lived in San Miquel de Allende for over a year after I retired and enjoyed not only learning the language, but so much about it’s culture and history. It was the best twelve month vacation ever. Hope you have a wonderful week!



    November 8, 2010 at 19:27

  9. great post. i was just at the museum on sunday and found the display on dia de las muertas very colorful and fascinating, but nothing as colorful as that last image of a skull.

    my post for this week is over at http://calrat.blogspot.com


    November 8, 2010 at 19:52

  10. I never knew you were born in Mexico? What amazing colors and mask decorations. Do you speak Spanish?


    November 8, 2010 at 20:57

    • Yes, I even studied Spanish at university. It’s now been replaced by learning Swedish.. and is very rusty. But somewhere, there is a huge drawerful of language waiting to be revived!


      November 9, 2010 at 05:47

  11. What a poignant occasion.


    November 8, 2010 at 22:24

  12. Clive

    Brillant post!

    We have several Mexican bloggers we follow and we love the way they celebrate death at this time of year.

    Here it is all about going to Mass, and praying and remembering but the idea of feasting and celebrating those that have died seems so much better.


    November 8, 2010 at 23:51

  13. it’s always interesting to know traditions from other countries and cultures. the last shot is quite eerie but colourful.


    November 9, 2010 at 00:02

  14. I don’t know if I’d want to adorn my living space with these skulls! However, the flamboyant lady looks something like me… Death is the great equalizer. I’m going to laugh while I can, Fi!


    November 9, 2010 at 02:17

  15. You are blessed to remain rooted in your ancient soul

    Aloha from Waikiki 🙂

    Comfort Spiral




    November 9, 2010 at 02:42

  16. I like the idea of death picnics..fun erals are not much fun, so why not have a picnic..eat, drink and be merry soon we shall all perish.
    Great quotes in this post..I am sure we don’t have celebrations on November First because it is usually snowy and who wants to have a picnic in the snow? It would be a short and sweet fun time:)


    November 9, 2010 at 03:44

  17. deb

    I think it’s fascinating and healthy. I am slowly appreciating the art…


    November 9, 2010 at 03:45

  18. I just LOVE that first photo! It’s beautiful. It’s a wonderful thing when people are so comfortable with all of the aspects of life and death that they can celebrate both. I really do admire the tradition of the Day of the Dead.


    November 9, 2010 at 04:23

  19. i love the hand-painted skull! we also have a colorful All Souls’ Day celebration here…lots of food and family reunions. it’s a joyous occasion second to Christmas.:p

    your photos are terrific! skulls made of sugar, now that is interesting!:p


    November 9, 2010 at 05:27

  20. I didn’t know you were born in Mexico! I lived there several years also and am fond of many Mexican traditions, not to mention the food!

    I went to a Dia de los Muertos procession here in San Francisco on Nov 2, it was really interesting. I wish I understood the celebration better, it was not at all scary or creepy. Lots of families.

    I was not aware they had these celebrations in Europe.


    November 9, 2010 at 05:45

  21. Deadly colorful My World posting 🙂

    Have a nice week,
    Greetings, Bram

    My Word Tuesday post

    Seen on My World Tuesday


    November 9, 2010 at 07:39

  22. Very interesting post ! I think it gives a little explanation to me why suddenly skulls are so in fashion. I saw a mineral stone exhibition here in Brussels and lots of semi precious stones were carved as skulls !
    I too would prefer a joyful athmosphere around my grave !


    November 9, 2010 at 07:41

  23. Amazing pictures! I have loved the idea of Day of the Dead since I first learned about it (as an adult, first time we visited Mexico –sadly we didn’t have a very global education).

    Did you grow up in Mexico?


    November 9, 2010 at 07:47

    • No, I left Mexico when I was a baby. I grew up in the Philippines and Argentina.


      November 9, 2010 at 08:44

  24. Fun to see the dead remembered like that somewhere. Here it´s all doom and gloom.


    November 9, 2010 at 07:54

  25. Amazing customs. Thank you for sharing.

    And I never knew you were from Mexico!


    November 9, 2010 at 07:55

    • I’m not from Mexico – just born there. I’m an ex-pat Brit living in Sweden.. but was born in Mexico due to my dad’s job.


      November 9, 2010 at 08:43

  26. Too often we cannot embrace death – we try to ignore it. A picnic at the graveside sounds tremendous.


    November 9, 2010 at 10:44

  27. very colourful and intriguing.


    November 9, 2010 at 10:50

  28. Ash

    Colourful and very interesting!


    November 9, 2010 at 12:23

  29. There’s an old saying that a person’s life is not really over until there is no-one left speaking their name, and none of their works survive.

    So for instance my great-grandfather’s life is not ended, although he died before I was born. We still have the evening dress cape he made for my father, and my husband sometimes wears it when we go out to black tie events!


    November 9, 2010 at 12:41

  30. Thank you for sharing your interesting world with me through this post.


    November 9, 2010 at 13:02

  31. land of shimp

    Hey Lady Fi, I loved the collection of pictures here. Isn’t it a wonderful thought, to mourn joyfully and exuberantly? Death as a protracted absence that will eventually pass for us all before we’re together again is a really comforting thought, and it makes sense that it is celebrated.

    You sort of speak to the world in pictures, and others choose stories. Part of the reason I’ve always liked TV and film is that the two can be combined — plus people tend to lower their guard with fiction, learn about new things, feel less likely to push away the unknown. I swear there’s a reason I’m going into that.

    I remember a show called Dead Like Me, which only the title was dreadful, it was a comedy/drama on Showtime (not for people uncomfortable with swearing, but there’s no nudity, just a lot of cussing) about a gang of Grim Reapers. Anyway, that was the series that introduced me to Dias de los Muertos and three other shows also featured explanations. They weren’t ghoulish stories, most of them were celebratory.

    Doesn’t that make all kinds of sense? There is something very comforting about Dias de los Muertos, Just the concept of being both peaceful and joyful at the same time is very compelling.

    So when I read your post, and saw the pictures it made me think of the stories I’ve seen, and read about Dias de los Muertos and why it is that it feels so right to sort of spread the word on it.

    I think because we, at least here in the U.S. and in most western cultures, approach death with a lot of fear. It’s somber, sedate, sad …and it is the thing we have in common with everyone else…we all lose someone and we all eventually are lost.

    A day, every year, in which the departed are celebrated with a spirit of, “We meet once a year, until we meet again forever” feels like a gift to be given to all, doesn’t it? Thank you for sharing that with people.


    November 9, 2010 at 13:59

    • Oh Shimpy – you have described my feelings so very lyrically!


      November 9, 2010 at 14:05

  32. Beautiful post and solemn images. The celebration of All Saints is the one I grew up with, instead of Halloween. I recall nostalgic visit to the graves of family members, long gone, and the lighting of the candles.


    November 9, 2010 at 16:29

  33. Happy Tuesday!


    November 9, 2010 at 19:14

  34. A big celebration like this is held every year at the Hollywood Forever in LA, called dia de los Muertos. An elaborate festivities full of myth and colors. I went there the day after.


    November 9, 2010 at 21:31

  35. Al

    Very interesting post, and the artwork is very impressive. I think here in the USA people are so afraid of and distant from death.


    November 10, 2010 at 01:53

  36. that was such an interesting post! love to learn about cultures around the world..
    thank you so much for sharing so beautifully


    November 10, 2010 at 05:58

  37. Superb decoration
    A bit scary though



    November 10, 2010 at 07:16

  38. Beautiful shots. Very unique museum.


    November 10, 2010 at 08:04

  39. Amazing post and wonderful shots!


    November 10, 2010 at 08:29

  40. An interesting tradition. Here in NZ most Europeans stop grave visits after a couple of years. Now we have cremations the ‘graves’ are just plaques and not very exciting to visit. I do agree though that we should celebrate our loved one’s life, not mourn their death. – Dave


    November 10, 2010 at 09:00

  41. Fabulous post! Interesting with great pics 🙂

    C x


    November 10, 2010 at 14:09

  42. Day of the Dead is so fascinating. My kids are lucky enough to have good Spanish teachers who help them understand this celebration.


    November 11, 2010 at 00:22

  43. These are really beautiful. It’s wonderful the way the dead are remembered, the past venerated. So much more meaningful is our present as a result!


    November 11, 2010 at 00:54

  44. Thats a wonderful tradition… What beautiful lines, laugh when angry, live when dead…


    November 11, 2010 at 03:39

  45. How nice that they make it so colorful!


    November 11, 2010 at 10:18

  46. beautiful post lady fi!!! Thanks so much for stopping by and visiting my site. I’m wondering if you would like to participate in the gratitude quilt. I know Thanksgiving is not a tradition (at least not on a thursday in Nov) in your homeland, but I am trying to create word quilt that includes folks from all around the world…every day is a day to celebrate gratitude!!! If you want to join in…go to the top of my blog for directions and send me your “in this moment I am grateful for…” thoughts to my email address provided there..you can also click on a link “mega mobius gratitude quilt” to view last year’s magnificent quilt!!! I do hope you will join in!

    gentle steps


    November 11, 2010 at 14:21

  47. I love visiting you because my eyes are always opened in so many ways.


    November 11, 2010 at 17:49

  48. I think it is a wonderful tradition … and so colorful too. I think I would like to start incorporating this into my life in some way as well.


    November 12, 2010 at 01:13

  49. JM

    Love the Dia de los Muertos celebrations! Unfortunatelly I visited Mexico in a different occasion… Very cool pics!


    November 14, 2010 at 14:39

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