“A civilisation that denies death ends by denying life.”
They say you only truly die when your name is spoken for the last time. Nowhere is this more true than in Mexico, where Día de Muertos – or Day of the Dead – takes remembering lost loved ones to a whole new level.
At first glance, this national holiday may pass for a Mexican version of Halloween, with its spooky skeletons and sweet treats. But while modern Halloween exists purely to peddle pumpkins and face paint, Día de Muertos is a bittersweet reflection on love, loss and life well lived.
According to Mexican tradition, 2nd November is the one day when souls can leave the afterlife. To help guide lost loved ones back to earth, families build elaborate altars in homes and graveyards. These offerings are draped with flower garlands and colourful crêpe paper, and hung with corn cobs, fruit and sugar cane. Dozens of flickering candles light the way, while the scent of cempasúchil – Mexican marigolds – hangs in the air.
Water, salt and sweet pan de muerto bread are laid out to nourish the dead after their long journey home – and it doesn’t stop there. Children’s graves are festooned with sweets and toys, while tobacco and tequila are left to tempt the spirits of adults. Families even prepare platefuls of their loved one’s favourite meals for their short time back on earth.
All this may sound morbid, but Día de Muertos is far from a day of moping and mourning. Families gather to remember those they’ve lost, not with sadness but with songs, stories and laughter. The foods from the offerings are eaten, music played and memories shared.
To outsiders, this lack of solemnity may even seem disrespectful. But as a friend explained, “When someone you love dies, it affects you every day, so why would you be sad on the one day they’re back here with you?”
When you look at it like that, it’s hard to argue that the Day of the Dead is anything but beautiful. But how can it possibly comfort those who – like me – don’t believe in heaven, souls or anything else beyond this world?
As an atheist, I spent my first year in Mexico looking at Día de Muertos from the outside in; as something only other people believed in. The religious. The spiritual. Those brought up in Mexican culture. Another couple of years on, though, and I was starting to understand that this remembrance is much more than merely symbolic.
Believe in what you will, let’s say all those who ever cared about a particular person gather together in one place to remember them by sharing their most vivid and vibrant memories. Surely then, for that one moment at least, that person’s spirit really is there?
And so, while I have endless wishes for my life, I now have only one for my death: let me die like a Mexican. When I’m gone – with any luck many years from now – let me be remembered as Mexicans are. Let bright orange blossoms, the gentle glow of candles and the smell of my favourite foods guide me home; let me be brought back to life once a year through the love and laughter of those who knew me.
If that’s not life after death, I don’t know what is.