The Day of the Dead | A Celebration of Life

“Celebrate my life, don’t mourn my death,” I told a friend some years back.

Is it macabre to think of death as an old friend to be welcomed and not a hooded grim reaper to be feared?

In our present age, many view death as an unwelcome guest to be avoided at all costs. Some scientists have even gone as far as to claim that death might one day be reversible. In our single-minded quest to put our life experiences into neat binaries, we have simplified and reduced the transitionary experiences of both life and death to polar opposites.

But is there a grey zone that exists between the two?

The Lives of the Dead

The Aztecs and Nahua people who lived in what is now central Mexico saw death as an integral part of life. After the death of the physical body, the immortal soul would travel to Chicunamictlán, the Land of the Dead, where a new journey awaited. After nine challenging levels–a journey which took several years–the person’s soul would finally reach Mictlán, the final resting place.

I have always been fascinated by how different cultures around the world explain life after life. In my novel The Merchant of Stories, I dedicated a significant portion of the book to discussing the Hindu fortnight of Shradh: a ritual that is performed to pay homage to one’s ancestors. I can’t say I was particularly surprised to find a similar practise halfway across the world. I’ve always said–we humans are more alike than we are different.

The Day of the Dead

Dia de los Muertos Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday that takes place annually on the first two days of November. It is a celebration where one honours the family, friends and ancestors who no longer reside amongst the living. The modern day practise is a combination of pre-Hispanic religious rites and European feasts. It takes place on All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day in the Catholic calendar which coincides with the autumn maize harvest.

During the time of the Aztecs, however, the festivities took place during the month of August and were dedicated to Mictecacihuatl, one of the deities who ruled over the Land of the Dead. In Nahua rituals that honoured the departed; family members would provide food, water and other necessary items to aid the deceased through the difficult journey in the afterlife. The contemporary Day of the Dead practise–in which people leave food and other offerings on their loved ones’ graves or set them out on makeshift altars called ofrendas in their homes–has its roots in ancient Aztec beliefs that go back several thousands years.

An offrenda altar at the National Museum of Singapore

For the Aztec, Toltec and Nahua people, it was disrespectful to mourn for those who had passed on. To them, departed souls remained members of the community and were kept alive in memory and spirit.

The ancient ones did not seek to mourn their deaths. They much preferred to celebrate their lives.

The National Museum of Singapore

I am intoxicated by the scent of sweet flowers the moment I walk into the installation at the National Museum of Singapore. I gaze down at the floor where innumerable orange flowers are expertly arranged in a spectacular array of loveliness. They look like chrysanthemums, but not quite… What could they be? In Hinduism, it is believed that astral beings have a particularly strong sense of smell. It is why one offers flowers to deities in temples.

My eyes linger on the offrenda altar and the tapete carpet that’s decorated with flowers, rice grains and seeds. I grin back at the skulls that line the altar. Were they happy they no longer had to exist amongst the living? Or were they delighted to be reunited with their loved ones during this brief and fleeting two day window?

I stop for a second to remember those whom we lost during mankind’s bloody wars. I think of all those whose descendants had neglected them. What would happen to them in the afterlife?

With my guide Roy

“Have you seen the movie Coco?” he asks me as I kneel on the floor and take a picture of a sugar skull on the offrenda.

I laugh. Of course, I’ve seen Coco. For those of you who haven’t, the 2017 animated fantasy film tells the tale of Miguel, a young boy who is an aspiring musician. When confronted with his family’s ancestral ban on music, Miguel accidentally finds himself in the Land of the Dead where he attempts to find his great-great-grandfather, a legendary singer.

Coco is the first-ever motion picture with a nine-figure budget to feature an all-Latino cast. Hooray for Hollywood.

Pop culture references aside, efforts have been made by UNESCO to include living expressions of cultures and traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation. In 2008, UNESCO recognised the importance of Día de los Muertos by adding the holiday to its list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Today, Mexicans from all religious and ethnic backgrounds celebrate Día de los Muertos, but at its core, the holiday remains a reaffirmation of indigenous life.

Respecting the Ancestors

What were our ancient ancestors trying to tell us? How did we ‘progress’ so far and wind up where we are now? So lost and so utterly confused? I still haven’t found the answer to these questions. I decide to ask a simpler one instead.

“Are these chrysanthemums?” I ask Roy as I stare at the numerous flowers.

“They’re marigolds,” he says.

It is believed that these flowers use their colour and scent to guide spirits to their respective altars during the Day of the Dead. Unlike the sombre mood that marks most occasions that deal with the deceased; the events that mark this Mexican holiday are filled with music, food and festivities.

In addition to flowers and handicrafts, the deceased’s favourite dishes are prepared and placed around the offrenda. According to UNESCO, “Great care is taken with all aspects of the preparations, for it is believed that the dead are capable of bringing prosperity (an abundant maize harvest) or misfortune (illness, accidents, financial difficulties) upon their families depending on how satisfactorily the rituals are executed.”

The Lives of the Living

Irrational fears of the inevitably of death aside, I do believe we continue to have a relationship with those who have departed. In David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, he writes, “Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”

I do not know what tomorrow holds, but presently it seems that I am a long way from the tomb. But when that day comes, kindly hold me a party. My favourite dishes and flowers will be much appreciated.

My soul thanks you in advance from the afterlife.

Author: Dipa Sanatani

Publisher | Mith Books | Author of The Little Light and The Merchant of Stories

3 thoughts

  1. Yesterday I was just thinking about we should talk about death and cerebrate death more~ birth and death are equally important while most of us only cerebrate birth.

    1. I think humans don’t accept the inevitability of death the same way that they used to. It scares us, I think.

      We need to cherish our time on this planet.

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