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Monday, November 1, 2010

Honoring the Ancestors

In the Victorian era, families would gather in cemeteries to honor their deceased loved ones.  They would celebrate by cleaning up around the graves, and having a picnic.  Cemeteries were quiet, peaceful places, beautifully landscaped and with trees for shade.  In fact, they functioned somewhat like parks.  Some of these picnics became elaborate affairs, and some gravesites were even designed for these events with stone slabs that could be used as benches or tables.  In some areas of the U.S., predominantly in the South and usually on Memorial Day, this is still done.

Since ancient times and worldwide, people have set aside a time to commemorate their forerunners.  At one time people were buried near their homes, thus remained near their family.  As people began to bury their kin in sites dedicated for this, they believed that when the souls of their loved ones returned, it was first to the place where they were buried.  Thus most of the traditions involve sprucing up gravesites, bringing offerings, and feasting.  Ching Ming is the Chinese festival for remembering the ancestors; it has roots going back 2,500 years ago.  Koreans call their similar tradition Hansik.  Japanese Buddhists call it the Bon festival.  Feralia was the day the ancient Romans conducted their homage.  In Africa, the Yoruban Odun Egungun festivals are one of the many held to honor the dead.  Most European countries have traditions where the graves of dead relatives are visited and brought gifts.  But perhaps the most well known celebration is the Mexican Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

The origins of this festival come from the indigenous cultures of Mexico, going back in time about as far as the Ching Ming.  The original festival was celebrated in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, which occurred about the time of our month of August, and the celebration lasted the whole month.  When the Spanish arrived, they tried and failed to cease this “pagan” rite.  In an attempt to make it more Christian, they moved the date to coincide with All Saints’ Day (November 1st) and All Souls’ Day (November 2nd), when it is still celebrated today.  Dia de Los Muertos has nothing to do with Halloween, despite the graveyard venue and the use of skulls to celebrate both.  Skulls were important in pre-Hispanic times, and may have been kept as trophies, brought out for ceremonial occasions.

November 1st is dedicated to honoring children, referred to as Dia de los Inocentes (the innocents) or Dia de los Angelitos (the little angels).  November 2nd is known as Dia de los Muertos, or Dia de los Difuntos, and honors adults.  Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead) is made, along with other pastries and sugar treats shaped like skulls.  People go to cemeteries and build altars that hold the favorite foods and drinks of their ancestors.  Marigolds, called Flor de Muerto, are thought to attract the souls of the dead and symbolize life’s brevity -  they are used en masse to decorate the graves and altars.  There are photos and memorabilia of the dead, and for children who have passed there may be toys.  Some people place blankets and pillows out so the dead can rest after their long journeys home.  Stories about the dead are shared, and amusing anecdotes are told.  Although the food provided is for the dead, once they are offered it, the attending families consume it.  Alcoholic beverages, such as tequila, mezcal, or pulque, are offered to the adult ancestors. 

The planning of these events is done throughout the  year.  This is a joyous celebration and much anticipated.  It is a welcoming of the dead back to homes and families, albeit for a very short time.  The meals prepared are culinary feasts, and usually feature a mole, which is stew-like sauce.  The Ur-moles were made of dry chilies, tomatoes, seeds, and chocolate.  Today each mole is as different as the cooks who make them, but the mother-of-all-moles is the black mole, usually made with over thirty ingredients.  Several types of chilies are used, such as guajillos, pasillas, anchos, and chipotles.  Other ingredients can include raisins, plantains, peanuts, cinnamon, various herbs, and of course, chocolate.  Some moles are an all-day project.

The possession of Dia de los Muertos items will bring good luck, so dolls and masks of skulls are everywhere.  Tattoos associated with this event are popular and a permanent good luck charm.  It really is a beautiful tradition, though sadly misunderstood.  There is a Mexican saying:
It is said that we suffer three deaths:  
first when we actually die;
then the day our body is buried;
and the final death is the day we are forgotten.

Dia de los Muertos exists so that the third death never happens.


  1. My grandfather's annual family reunion (in South Carolina) was always held at the church where most of his ancestors, going back to the 1700s, were buried. After lunch, everyone would go out in the cemetery to spruce up the graves and put fresh flowers on them. My cousin and I were chatting just recently about what fun we had playing among the gravestones and crypts. As a consequence, I've never found graveyards scary or depressing; I tend to see them more as a very quiet cocktail party full of interesting people to read about.

  2. Love your quiet cocktail party remark! I think it's a healthy attitude to seed graveyards in a positive light. Larry's family in Georgia did the Memorial Day thing. I had a fascination with graveyards as a child, and my grandfather would walk me to the local one and we would look at all the headstones and make up stories about the people. It was great one-on-one time with my grandfather.