“Mexicans are familiar with death; they joke about it, caress it, sleep with it, and celebrate it. It is one of their favorite playthings and their most steadfast love.”
Photos: Lissette Storch – Puebla, Mexico
Death is a verb and a noun.
In Mexico, we’ve personified death, dressing her up and giving her nicknames—le hablamos de tú*.
Death is a ‘she’.
Originally, sugar skulls were created as a reminder of the ever-present nature of death, lurking around every corner. They serve as one of the many expressions of our inevitable eventual encounter with “the lady with many names”: La Catrina (“the rich or elegant one”), La Tía de las Muchachas (“the girls’ aunt”), La Fría (“the cold one”), La Novia Blanca (“the white bride”).
Death is a character who roams among us.”
Death is life.
As is the case in any major Mexican holiday, food takes center stage on el Día de Muertos. Alongside pan de muerto, which translates to “bread of the dead,” and cempasúchil flowers, sugar skulls stand as integral components of this festivity. Virtually every element of el Día de Muertos bears a deliberate purpose and profound meaning. The bread symbolizes the circle of life and communion with the deceased’s body, while the flowers pay homage to the transient nature of existence.
In rural Mexico, this ritual is a rich amalgamation of both form and substance.
My upbringing was predominantly urban, and for the most part, I watched these festivities from the sidelines. It wasn’t until my grandmother passed away when my uncle and mother assumed the responsibility of preserving this three-thousand-year-old tradition, that I became actively involved and increasingly fascinated by it.
Year after year, our family embarks on a journey to a small village on the outskirts of Puebla, where we assemble an ofrenda in honor of my grandmother, great-grandmother, and other departed relatives. These cherished souls are lovingly remembered with offerings of their favorite dishes. For instance, my grandmother had a passion for cooking, so in addition to food, her treasured kitchen tools are carefully arranged around her photograph.
Candles play a dual role, symbolizing both hope and faith while also illuminating the path for the departed as they make their descent. Water is included to quench the souls’ thirst and serve as a symbol of purity. Through these ofrendas, we preserve the memory of our loved ones and call upon their spirits.
The festivities continue at the cemetery, where the living and the departed come together to share a meal, listen to music, and enjoy fireworks.
For a few days in November, in Mexico, death is a party.
* ‘Hablar de tú‘ means to address someone casually, vs. the respectfully ‘usted’ that is reserved to address those who you don’t know or those who haven’t granted you permission to do otherwise.