Death and the Afterlife

The Day of the Dead: A Fiesta with the Fallen


Sabahat Ali, Mexico

In some ways, the greatest truth of life is death.

This weekend, while much of the western world is dismayed by the not-so-novel Coronavirus impeding Halloween celebrations, Mexico and much of Latin America welcome death – and the dead – with open arms.

November 1st and 2nd mark Dia de los Muertos, (Day of the Dead) a day in which those who have died are remembered with one peculiar particularity – instead of meditative mourning, they are commemorated by mirth and merriment. Across Mexico especially, it is believed that the departed souls of loved ones return on these sacred days to this world.

On these Spanish nights, graveyards glow with a ghoulish gold – a strange spectacle forged from hundreds of candles embracing the pale graves, adorned with bouquets of marigolds. 

Even more striking, are the calacas and calaveras (skeletons and skulls), painted – quite literally – to the teeth, with jovial and jubilant colours, signifying a sort of mockery of death. Beyond the colours and the sights though, are the bizarrely bamboozling banquets, which line the grave-spots of dead loved ones. Here, families collect to bring festive foods, from pan de muerto (bread of the dead), to the favourite meals of the fallen. From the conspicuous colours and liveliness of the lights, to the dinners with the dead, this rebellion against the morbidity of death is a shock to the senses. 

How It started & How It’s Going

Indigenous Aztecs traditionally felt that remembering the dead with sorrow and grief was offensive to the memory of the fallen, and instead sought to reminisce upon the joys of life.

But cemeteries are not the only places where Mexican people unroll the red carpet for the souls of their loved ones to return for a night in their honour. From huge parades that swarm the streets of Mexico City, filled to the brim with skeletons and ghouls, to packed concert halls, house parties and restaurants teeming with celebratory fiestas, the Day of the Dead is anything but dead.

When Catholicism was imported from Spain by the conquistadors, All Saints Day and All Souls Day were appropriated to the Aztec traditions of celebrating the dead and mocking death – and thus emerged the Day of the Dead in Mexico. Today, countries all over Latin America, consisting of large Mexican populations, celebrate this fascinating event with a lively take on death.  

Hence, while a great deal of partying and merriment dominate the day, (and much of the night in some places) for those with stronger religious sentiments, dia de los Muertos is also a day of prayer and regal remembrance. 

In 2020 however, nothing is quite the same. With the constraints of a global pandemic, many of the celebrations can simply not go on. A quick drive through the poorer delegations of Mexico City reveals an alarmingly lax attitude toward Covid-19 restrictions for a country ranked No. 3 in the world for cases and deaths. 

The Meaning of Death Among the Living

For most, the concept of death is something that the human mind seems to conveniently tuck away until forced to face. Yet, all the major religions of the world draw deliberate attention to it as a means of beautifying life. The idea that there is something beyond this life is once again gaining sway, even among the most educated circles. Between the multi-verse theory and metaphysics, the notion that souls go on after the conclusion of our physicality is hardly a strange proposition.

Whether one believes in an afterlife or not, it is a profound point to ponder. The fact that prophets who came to totally different nations, (when communication between many of these lands was impossible) and whose advents were centuries and even millennia apart, all taught the concept of an after life, is certainly not something any fair-minded person might brush off as a coincident. 

A Case-In-Point – The Islamic Take 

Of all the major world religions, Islam paints a picture of the after life which arguably appeals most to rationality. It begins by arguing that the same God who created everything from nothingness can just as easily create again. The fact that energy does not simply fall out of existence but continues on in various states, demonstrates that death is more the conversion of energy from one state to another, rather than the end of it. So there is really no doubt left that while our bodies end, there are various forms of us that carry on in the cyclical workings of the universe, playing active roles.

The most intriguing question, though, is whether our consciousness carries on after death.

About this, the Fourth Worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, once explained the Islamic conviction. Addressing a crowd of English guests, he remarked:

‘When we die, we will not lose consciousness in the sense of a soul which separates from the body. The soul, which is an enigma for scientists, is of such a nature that when it parts from the body, the body chemistry immediately begins to decay and returns to its constituent substances with no more sense left in the body at all. Is the soul also destroyed? Is it so dependent on the body that it must live in a constant bond with the body?’ [1]

According to Islam, it is true that in the case of other animals, when the body dies, life ends. In the case of humans, when life ends, the body dies, not the soul. The soul is only mentioned in connection with human beings and not in relation to animals. The body dying or life ending, is one and the same thing. In the case of human beings, the word soul (rooh) is used, and this has developed to a degree that it has the capability of becoming an independent entity in itself; a spiritual form which can live after the separation. 

‘What is the nature of that form? We don’t know much about it, but this much, at least, the scientists have discovered is that energy bundles can survive as energy bundles. Previously, they used to rubbish the belief in souls, but they now admit that what they have discovered leads us to the possibility of some sort of human energy living in an organised form as separated from the physical existence of man. That is what will happen in the first instance. The soul will have a consciousness of some sort.’ [2]

One thing is for sure, whether we believe that we will live on in the memories of others, as a life-saving organ in a fellow human being, as the blood of a transfusion-recipient, as the soil that gives life to the foliage which is critical for our planet’s future, as energy which, after all, cannot be destroyed, or as conscious souls, death is less the name of an end, and far more the name of countless beginnings. 

About the Author: Sabahat Ali is a graduate from the Canadian Ahmadiyya Institute of Languages and Theology. He currently serves as an Imam of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Mexico, and is a regular contributor for the Review of Religions. 


[1] Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad (rh), Q&A With Guests, London, November 18 1995. Retrieved October 29, 2020.

[2] Ibid