Death and the Afterlife The Americas

Day of the Dead – Dia de los Muertos

Fazal Ahmad, London, UK

The El dia de los muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated by people across Mexico, and has been confused as a Halloween celebration. So what are the origins and significance of the festival for Mexicans? I was fortunate to visit Mexico in late 2018 and got an insight from the local indigenous Mayan community there.

In actual fact, although it is now celebrated at the same time as Halloween (November 1 as the Day of the Innocents and November 2 as All Souls Day) and has adopted some of the popular imagery from the US tradition, prior to the Spanish Colonisation of Mexico in the 16thCentury, it was celebrated at a different time of year in the Summer.  

It was a day to briefly welcome back the souls of the departed and help them in their onward journey. According to some traditions, this is a day when families are reunited with the souls of their loved ones because the gates of heaven are temporarily opened.

On the surface, people now dress in Halloween type-masks and so it is easy to confuse or misinterpret their intentions, but as my guide Joséexplained, the celebration is out of respect for their loved ones and ancestors as they progress in the next life. 

There is evidence linking this festival back to the Aztecs and beyond, perhaps around 3,000 years ago. According to traditional Mesoamerican beliefs, a person’s soul would travel to the Land of the Dead (Chicunaumictlan) and over time, would have to go through several challenges before reaching their ultimate heavenly resting place at Mictlanor the lowest place Mitnal

So as part of this journey, the festival was for families to help the soul progress along this journey.As part of that respect, on this day, Mexicans visit the graves of loved ones and leave an offering of their favourite food, toys and other relevant items, to ease their journey in the afterlife. They tidy the graves and remember stories and anecdotes about deceased relatives.

Author left, and José(right)

Some also dig up the bones of loved ones, carefully clean them and then put the bones back into the grave. Joséshowed us videos of the cleaning process, and what became obvious is that this is a devotional activity out of duty, love and respect for the dead, and has no supernatural elements. 

They believe that their ancestors also help protect them. Jose went to great lengths to explain the spiritual significance for Mayans and other indigenous tribes from Central America, and that it has nothing to do with the Halloween celebrations.

Similar festivals for the dead are held in the region, and all have the same basis of respect and love for ancestors, and painting a more positive element to death.

Whilst these traditions have evolved over time and syncretised with elements from Christianity, the concept of the journey of the soul and the many levels of heaven are not too dissimilar to beliefs from the Abrahamic faiths. 

In Islam, the Holy Qur’an describes seven heavens (41:13), which has been interpreted either as many layers of the universe or many stages towards heaven. 

The spirit or soul progresses through many stages until it can reach the ultimate state of perfection just as an embryo goes through many stages before the final human form.