Celebrating Life by Mocking Death? Or, Why I Think Dia de los Muertos is Awesome

Posted: October 9, 2014 in Featured Content, Life Lessons
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Dia de los MuertosWhat’s your biggest fear? Spiders? Speaking in public? Heights?

Mine is, by far, death. I know, that’s not very original, is it?

Isn’t everyone scared of dying, at least to some degree?

I’m sorry to be so morbid here, but isn’t it slightly terrifying that death means . . . The End? Story Est Finito. Game Over. If you really sat and contemplated the finality of death, I wonder if it would scare the daylights out of you like it does me?

Fearing Death Can Also Sorta Give You a Necessary Kick in the Ass

Since I was very little, I have been frightened by the looming possibility of death: a real, physical terror, in the form of cold sweats and the sharp slice of panic shooting through my stomach. The movie Stand By Me sent me into an 8-year-old’s existential crisis. My 8-year-old self lay awake in bed, letting my mind wander just far enough to hit the edge, and as soon as I’d feel that all-encompassing sense of creeping dread come over me like a wave of invisible creepy crawlies, I would mentally rip my mind away from thinking about it. On to fun thoughts! My Little Ponies! Let’s sing the chorus to Hit the Road Jack, over and over! Anything to return my brain to a less traumatized state.

For my entire life, I’ve had an almost physical fear of death. Any time I would think about it too long or too deeply, I would begin to feel shooting arcs of anxiety and become ill with dread. Although it’s really the one thing you can count on in this life (everything dies!), that doesn’t make it any easier to comprehend or accept.

Now, I’m older and the sense that the clock is ticking always knocks at my consciousness when I’m least expecting it. But what terrifies also motivates, and knowing that our time is limited and precious here in this life makes me more determined than ever to face down the demons of life. Attack those things I feel I was meant to do.

Write if you’re going to be a writer!

Paint if you feel the pull!

Love, laugh, travel, pursue big dreams.

You’re only here for a brief visit, make the most of it, damn it!

It took me over thirty years of living to finally understand that life doesn’t mean doing what you’re told to do, or living ordinary. There comes a day where you say to yourself: Hey, you . . . if you were old and dying, would you regret not pursuing those things when you had the chance? Um, hell yes!

Where I’m at in life now is old enough to know that I can’t take my time for granted, and young enough to be able to do anything I set out to do (except back bends. Those, not so much). The only person who stands in the way of great things is me, and the very thing I’m so terrified of is the greatest motivator to make me get out of my box and do all the other terrifying things I can do, because I’m still here to do them.

Beliefs Are a Comfort to Most of Us

There’s a billion people who believe a billion different beliefs about life: where we come from, where we’re going, and how we’re getting there. I think, personally, that every person has a right to their own beliefs, and shouldn’t have to be force fed why everyone else’s are the right ones. I’m still figuring out mine. I do have a sense that things happen in the way that they’re supposed to, and forcing events to unfold in a certain way is useless; it’s just wasted time and energy. If something is meant to come about, it will. And if it doesn’t, there’s no need to devote a ton of thought and energy to it. Let it go (let it gooo!), it wasn’t meant to be. I also feel that when a person’s time is up, it’s up, and there’s no changing that.

Beyond those two things, I am not entirely sure where my beliefs lie. I have a fascination with the dark side of life. The psychology of people who do things that would be considered abnormal capture my attention, because I can’t comprehend what has to happen in their lives, their biology, their minds, to make them do the things that I read about in books or see in the news. It’s strange that a person like me, who is terrified of the prospect of death and dying, is also fascinated with everything surrounding death. Ghosts and spirits, even though I’m not sure I believe in them. The legends and stories explaining the darkness in life. Art, books, and movies about death, despair, and darkness.

I guess you could say what terrifies me inspires me.

I Found The Mirror. You Know, the Mirror . . . Of Destiny!

For a while now, I have had an obsession with Dia de los Muertos, the traditional Mexican holiday that translates as “The Day of the Dead.” It started when I was browsing a Mexican import shop several years ago. I was mostly broke, trying to get back on my feet, and trying to figure out what direction my life should be heading in. I was feeling proud of myself that day, for getting myself and my daughter out of the house, to visit the historic downtown of a nearby town for a day of fun that would be sort of affordable for a broke single mom. In this import shop were so many colorful and interesting artifacts, I found myself daydreaming about what life would be like if I were somebody else, rich and able to live in a house with an interior courtyard framed by black wrought iron surrounding a mosaic-tiled fountain. Yeah, you know that daydream . . .

In real life, I had wandered in front of a Day of the Dead mirror hanging on the wall. It was adorned with hammered tin and featured tiles of colorful scenes depicting happy skeletons dressed in fancy clothes. It was love at first sight between me and that mirror, as I pictured it hanging above my big, heavy sideboard in my dining room, my favorite room on my home because it is painted a deep red.

The Mirror . . . of Destiny!

The Mirror . . . of Destiny!

I spent months paying on that mirror before I could bring it home, but it felt like first thing I was able to have after my divorce that truly represented me. Since then, the entire concept of the Day of the Dead has continued to fascinate me, both for the colorful, happy imagery of a usually grotesque subject, and for the story behind the traditional holiday. The more I think about it, the more it seems right for me to use my fascination with the subject to begin to create a story or book about it, so I’ve started doing some research on the idea. I already have one idea kicking around for the traditional voodoo practices of the city of New Orleans that I hope to turn into a book, so this new idea seems to be a natural progression. (You see where my mind goes, right? Scared = fascinated, apparently.)

The Discovery of A Unique Ritual, Feared By Conquistadors (Who Were Afraid it Would Piss Off the Dead)

According to what I’ve found out so far, native people to central and Southern Mexico have celebrated the Day of the Dead for over 3,000 years by mocking and making fun of death. Now, it’s not a spiteful or hateful thing, it’s actually just the opposite. Way back in the days of the ancient Aztecs, the tradition first started. Aztec people held a festival to celebrate the goddess Mictecacihuatl, (yeah, that name!), who is supposed to be the ruler of the afterlife and the goddess of the Underworld, a very scary and badass sounding creature, if I do say. According to legend, the goddess presided over the ancient festivities, even though it was believed she died at birth. Soo, she’s a baby goddess? Or she was born an adult? Not sure how that all works, but anyway! Still . . . badass.

As with most cool things going on in the world, everything began to change when other people found out about it and didn’t understand it. This was about 500 years ago, when the Spanish Conquistadors landed in Mexico and found the native people involved in elaborate and good-natured ceremonies mocking death.

Those conquistadors didn’t really care to piss off the dead by allowing them to openly be mocked. So they tried to change things. You see, Spainards believed that death was the end of life.

The natives believed something else, a very beautiful view on death, actually. They embraced death because they believed death is just a natural continuation of life.

The Spainards weren’t called Conquistadors for nothing, though, and they went ahead and conquered those pesky beliefs. Before their arrival, the natives celebrated the festival of the Queen of Mictlan in all her badass glory for a whole month in the Ninth Month of the Aztec Solar Calender.

Or, as we refer to it – August.

Now, if any of you know holidays, you may know the Day of the Dead is celebrated near Halloween, or you may have even thought it was Halloween. Congratulations! That means the Conquistadors won! They moved the native celebration to coincide with their traditional All Souls/All Saints Day celebrations, which happen the two days following Halloween, on November 1 and November 2.

The changes made in the date stuck, but those natives weren’t gonna give up everything for some overbearing Conquistadors. Today, the Day of the Dead is celebrated traditionally over two days, mostly in the Oaxaca region of Mexico, but the popularity of the holiday has spread enough that it is celebrated in some form all over Mexico and the world.

You may wonder why it takes two days to celebrate the Day of the Dead? There’s a reason for that. After midnight on October 31, Mexican natives are ready for dia de los Inocentes or Angelitos, during which time the spirits of all the dead children can come back for 24 hours. Families spend a lot of time, and sometimes up to two months pay, preparing for this holiday and for dia de los Muertos, which occurs the next day when adult spirits of dead loved ones reunite with their living family members.

Lots of time is spent creating all the traditional items used in the Day of the Dead celebration. Families create elaborate altars of marigolds, which are called “the flower with 400 lives” and traditionally symbolized death to the Aztec Indians; papel picado, which are intricate tissue paper decorations; pan de los muertos, the bread of the dead, which is baked in round or skull shapes; and finally, the most well known symbol of the Day of the Dead, the calaveras, or sugar skulls. Artisans spend months crafting the small, colorful grinning skulls, which date back to the 18th century and represent a departed soul, often with the person’s name written on the forehead of the skull.

Skeletons, skulls, and people painted to look like skeletons/skulls have become really popular in modern celebrations of the Day of the Dead. The most famous skeleton symbol of the holiday is Catrina, a creation of artist Jose Guadalupe Posada, in a painting done around 1910. Catrina is why you often see a skeleton figurine wearing a fancy hat and a pretty Victorian dress. Legend has it, Catrina was a greedy and selfish rich lady who did nothing to help her fellow man when she was alive. Natives openly mocked and disparaged her by painting themselves as skeletons to show that they do not follow her greedy ways.

I’ve done two paintings so far that have painted faces in them. This one is me and from a Day of the Dead painting I did a few years ago:

Painted face selfie

Painted face selfie

And this one I am working on right now:

Catrina painted face

Catrina painted face

Also, here is Catrina as she was done by Posada in the early 1900’s:

The Catrina skull as done by Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada

The Catrina skull as done by Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada

An Ancient Celebration Takes a Commercial Turn in a Modern World – Or Does It?

There’s nothing new under the sun, right? What began as a native Aztec Indian festival in a remote region of Mexico several centuries ago is today, for lack of a better description, a commercial retailer’s dream. Just like Halloween has overtaken other holidays in popularity because the Gods of Wally World (Wal-mart) sayeth it is so, and Christmas displays are created in August to give you plenty of time to buy, buy, buy! – so, too, has the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead been commercialized. There’s Day of the Dead artwork on posters and cell phone cases. Sugar skulls abound. The distinction between a festival to honor loved ones who have passed (dia de los Muertos) and the ancient Gaelic night when they believed the barrier between the living and the dead was thin enough to allow spirits to come back and wreak havoc on people and crops (Halloween), has been all but lost in many ways.

Is it ghoulish, scary, or does it have to do with death? Eh, throw it in with Halloween. Then charge the shit out of it!

I will cop to loving the imagery, artwork, and creations associated with dia de los Muertos, for sure. But what is even better is that it allows me to see something that is terrifying to me with new eyes, thanks to the beliefs of one group of people.

People who truly celebrate dia de los Muertos do it because they care. They anticipate the return of those they loved by spending time out of their busy lives crafting a fitting “welcome back” tribute. They go to the cemetery with a picnic lunch and a basket of cleaning supplies so they can spend the day with their dearly departed’s’ Earthly remains, and do them justice by cleaning their final resting place. Then they sit nearby, eating the favorite foods of the people they loved, telling stories about the lives they lived.

It’s not a time to be sad those people are now gone. Instead, it’s a time to celebrate and honor the fact that they were here, and they lived. And, whether or not you and I believe that those spirits come back for 24 hours to visit, admire tiny colorful skulls and drink some mezcal, the people who celebrate this holiday carry on as if they do. For two whole days, they honor lives remembered and take time to acknowledge those people whose time on Earth may be up, but whose lives mattered. They mattered to friends, they mattered to family, and their presence is not forgotten.

It is celebrated.

I’m not over my fear of death, by any means. But do I love the thought that someday, long after I’m gone, the people who knew me will gather together, talk about how awesome I was, and eat and drink in honor of me?

Yes, yes, I love that thought.

Because, really, isn’t that what we’re all striving for? To live a life that has a lasting impact on the world, even in some small way? Skeletons and spirits, ancient festivals and modern interpretations aside, it all comes down to the fact that living or dead, we all want to believe our life and our legacy matters.

“Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.” –George Eliot

 

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  1. […] Celebrating Life by Mocking Death? Or, Why I Think Dia de los Muertos is Awesome […]

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