The skeleton dance


Dia de los Muertos, Flickr image by Glen's PicsAs the commemoration of All Souls and All Saints approaches I observe local children preparing for Halloween and the usual 'trick and treating'.

What an impoverished tradition we have here, derived from the USA. In Australia, young children dress up in anything they can find, often unrelated to Halloween: black tights, witches' hats, horror masks, Superman vests, Batman capes, and then visit their neighbours for sweets. They do not sing, dance or perform, and there is not much sense of what it means, or a prevailing image.

In contrast there are other traditions in which the darkness and mystery of death are celebrated with more dramatic rituals. Death is embraced with relish and macabre hilarity, reminiscent of the Middle Ages, when death was physically much closer. Illness and plagues brought death regularly home.

Customs have changed today, as death is sanitised and dead bodies are quickly moved to morgues. It is rare to bring a body home and for the family to gather for its own domestic ritual of farewell. The physicality of death is concealed.

In Mexico, the Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, is a holiday, and preparations begin early in October for the celebrations of 1 and 2 November, All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Crackers explode and fireworks go off in great bursts during the night. The dominant image is the skeleton.

There are skeletons everywhere in Oaxaca right now (a town in south-west Mexico). After the first jolt of surprise I became intrigued by the skulls and skeletons in every doorway, shop window, hotel foyer, restaurant and courtyard. They grinned, bobbed in the breeze and sometimes fell over, only to be carefully picked up and put back on their chairs.

The Day of the Dead is not a gloomy celebration but rather a recognition of death as part of life. The skeletons are decorated and dressed with hats, feathers and flowers. Some of the skulls are painted or illuminated, and the effect is astonishing: smiling skulls and dancing skeletons invite laughter and acknowledgement of the intimate relationship between death and life.

Grotesque? Yes, but vividly and hilariously so. Each display shows imagination and variety, from rows of skulls in a window to whole skeleton families holding hands.

This is Mexico where all of life is there on the cobbled street in front of you. Hardship and death also seem closer. Students and tourists walk past indigenous women on the street, begging, with babies wrapped across their chests. A blind man further along the same street sits with a begging bowl, every day in the same place, waiting for a few pesos.

In the entrance of a magnificent baroque church, an emaciated, elderly man beams when he is given a couple of dollars, revealing his blackened stumps of teeth.

On the next corner a group of country women have set up a stand where they are making fresh tortillas with beans and sauce, and selling them to a queue of workers. Further on fresh fruit salad is being put into plastic bags and offered for sale.

The poverty and the wealth are side by side: beggars, food vendors, small entrepreneurs and smart restaurants in every street. And starving dogs, with their ribs showing through the skin.

It is like a dance of death, as skeletons lean precariously out of every doorway and window, smiling, bejewelled and ready for the party.

A Mexican I questioned about the origins of the tradition said the Day of the Dead festivities in Mexico can be traced back to indigenous peoples thousands of years ago.

The festival once fell in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, in August, and was celebrated for the whole month. Festivities were devoted to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as the 'Lady of the Dead', who corresponds to the modern 'Santa Catrina' — one of the powerful images presented everywhere, and printed on merchandise.

Jose Guadalupe Posada originally created a famous print of this figure, as a parody of a Mexican upper-class female. Today his image of the costumed female with a skeleton face is associated with the Day of the Dead. She is one of the skeletons smiling from windows.

My Mexican friend commented, 'We inject humour into the thing we fear most. There is also a hint of Mexican machismo — I stick out my chest like a brave man and stand up to death!

In Mexico, sugar skulls are prepared, along with pan de muerto (bread of the dead), and candied pumpkin. These food offerings are placed on small altars in houses and most businesses, together with marigolds, photographs of the dead people they wish to 'make present', a cross and an image of the Blessed Virgin.

Another custom is for people to return to their villages to be with their families, visit cemeteries and decorate the graves. Everywhere, paper decorations featuring skulls and skeletons decorate the neighbourhood. The Day of the Dead is a rich example of enculturation, in which the living remember the dead and their ancestral heritage.

Margaret CodyMargaret Stanbridge Cody, who lives in both Sydney and the Blue Mountains, works in spiritual formation and runs Mountain Retreats.


Topic tags: margaret cody, day of the dead, Día de los Muertos, skeletons, santa catrina, Oaxaca



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Existing comments

I found this an open and welcome explanation of Halloween which is copied in South Pacific countries. Copied without understanding of the relationship of the dead to the living. In my country (NZ) children dressup and go around their neighbourhood, or further afield, for the sole purpose to extract sweets or fruit and gain "something for free". It promotes another opportunity in Society to "take" rather than to give.
Ann Scanlan | 01 November 2008

Hi Margaret,

Thank you for your lovely and 'lively' account of this most idiosyncratic of Latin American holidays. I was lucky to be in Mexico during Dia de los Muertos a few years ago and it was just as your describe it. Death is a visitor we can't ignore, so why not just invite it to dinner? seems to be the Mexican way. More poignant for me was that it occurs on my birthday!
Jen | 04 November 2008


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