The Last Page

The Day of the Dead: Homecoming in Mexico

By Patricia Plunket ’73

The grasshoppers are plump from feeding on the ripening corn, and the white butterflies have arrived. These simple observations mark the close of the rainy season and the advent of harvest activities. It is the end of October. In many Mexican communities, both rural and urban, this is the time to prepare the homecoming festivities that celebrate the annual visit of departed family members. The boundary between our world and the next is relaxed in autumn, and the souls of the dead return to partake in the bounty they helped assure through their intercessions with the divine.

The Day of the Dead in Mexico is a family affair. The spirits that arrive include infants who died in childbirth, siblings killed in car accidents, grandparents who lived to see old age, parents who didn’t survive to see children marry. They are the souls of the beloved, and they are welcomed with a party, a feast, music, laughter, comical verse, flowers, candy, presents — the things they most enjoyed in life.

During the last week of October, the fields are thick with orange marigolds, crimson cockscombs, and delicate white baby’s breath; but starting on the 27th, the flowers are cut and stacked in the open-slat trucks that take them to market. The official date of the Day of the Dead is November 2 — All Souls Day in the Catholic liturgical calendar — but in Mexico the celebrations begin on October 28, when those who died violent deaths come to visit; unbaptized infants are scheduled to arrive on the 29th, lonely souls on the 30th, and children on the 31st. From the afternoon of November 1 to the afternoon of the 2nd, time is reserved for adults. The prolonged observance of All Souls reflects the persistence of pre-Hispanic traditions that placed the rituals for the deceased during the last two weeks of October and the first week of November, a timing that was most fortunate for both the evangelical efforts of Spanish Catholicism and the preservation of ancient native custom.

The festivities center on household altars and the tombs in the local cemetery. The altars are rectangular — often made with tables and boxes — and although some say they mimic the tomb itself, they are much like the pre-Hispanic household altars of central Mexico that served to hold offerings for the ancestors. Like the Catholic saints, ancestors can be useful allies in negotiating life’s dilemmas if they are propitiated properly. Altars are most often set up for those who died during the past year. A picture of the deceased placed at one end of the altar is surrounded by fruits, nuts, and chocolate in addition to sugar skulls, dishes of cooked foods, tequila or mescal, and above all, bread specially baked for the occasion in wood-burning ovens. Items of ritual purification — water, salt, and copal, a fragrant tree resin burned in black ceramic censers — are also included. The altar is decorated with bushels of flowers and brightly colored cutout paper banners with fanciful scenes of skeletons. Even though the altar is usually dedicated to a person who died during the year, each deceased family member is recalled by lighting a tall, thick beeswax candle while saying the individual’s name. Votive candles provide beacons for the returning souls, and each day at noon trails of marigold petals are laid out from the altar to the street to guide the visitors back to their earthly homes as church bells toll to summon both the living and the dead to gather.

On the afternoon of November 1, families clean and decorate the graves of their departed members and stay in the cemetery throughout the night — sometimes praying, but often listening to the town band or chatting with those attending the neighboring dead. Children play games or listen to family stories about their departed kin. Food and drink are set out as a symbolic meal for the deceased, and leftovers are consumed by the living the next afternoon.

The food, flowers, and gifts that adorn the altars and graves are viewed as offerings, which means that just as the dead are celebrated, they are also venerated, since they are expected to intercede on behalf of their earthbound family. Even in the poorest homes, the offering should be sufficiently grand that the departed appreciate that they are well-remembered, loved, and respected by those they left behind.

Plunket ’73 has lived in Mexico for almost 35 years. She is chair of the anthropology department at the Universidad de las Americas-Puebla in Cholula. After completing her doctoral dissertation at Tulane University on the Mixteca Alta of Oaxaca, she has focused on the archaeology of southwestern Puebla in central Mexico.