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Sustaining Memories of Life: The Day of the Dead

El dio de los muertos means the Day of the Dead and has always been an important day of celebration in mostly Latino locations on November 1 – 2 (so it actually is 2 days of celebrations; November 1 honors deceased children and November 2 honors deceased adults). When we think of sustainability we think of the environment and conservation but there is also importance in sustaining the memories of a human life. Day of the Dead art and traditions date back to the Aztec culture, and when Catholicism came to Mexico.

The religious holidays of All Saints Day on November 1 and All Souls Day on November 2 fit in with the indigenous customs. In locations where the holiday is still tradition, families go to cemeteries and decorate and sit on the graves of loved ones, and have a picnic-style feast. Nothing is somber or macabre; the families tell lively and funny stories about the deceased loved ones as it is believed that those that have passed to the next world do not want survivors to be sad.

Indoors, families construct elaborate altars with articles and adornments that feature things that were special to the deceased. For example, there might be a can of Coke and lottery ticket for a family member to remember their pastime and favorite beverage.

In the true traditional altar, there are 3 levels built. The bottom level represents the underworld and includes fire images, such as lit incenses and candles. The middle level represents the life, and includes a photo of the deceased family member and objects that represent memories of the person being honored, as well as food and fruits. The top level represents the afterlife (heaven) and has symbols of this phase of the cycle of life, like angels or saints.

The altars are called ofrendas and they include offerings to the spirits that will encourage them to return to earth for a visit: a glass of water to quench the thirst from the trip from the afterlife and a special bread called pan de muertos (bread of the dead) that is a tasty sweet bread adorned with bones and a skull. Elaborately and colorfully decorated sugar skulls are also offered as artful sweet candies adorned with bright icings and shiny foils. Butterflies are included in the décor as it is believed that they carry the souls back and forth from the afterlife to the living and back. Marigolds are the traditional flowers used on altars because their strong scent is believed to entice the dead to return. Death is portrayed artistically as festive and even comical with skeletons dancing together sometimes in wedding garb or riding bikes.

The artistry associated with the Day of the Dead is becoming more and more popular in the USA. Bright skeleton clothing, jewelry, and seasonal décor can be found in mainstream stores like Target and Walmart all year long, and even more so these decorations are included in sales of Halloween items. It would seem that the happy and artful spirit of celebrating spirits gone appeals to many people. Arts elevation of death to be a happy, lively event is a good thing to celebrate.

Following are pictures of a home decorated for the Day of the Dead, and a miniature coffin about 18 inches in height decorated by Robin Monique Rios, a Lively Bottle artist, honoring another artistic tradition of the celebration.

 

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Lisa Radville