Love and Death in Mexico


Day of the Dead altar, Old Town San Diego

This is the third post in my celebration of Halloween series.

El Dia De Los Muertos

I read a statistic long ago that Spaniards and Latin Americans dream of death more often than other nationalities. It’s not that these populations are more morbid thinking or depressed; they just don’t avoid the subject out of fear, and so it becomes a more routine part of their thinking. Latin poetry and song is full of references of desperate love, a love so all-consuming that it is a kind of death. Of course, when you feel love intensely enough, the ego seems to dissolve, and so it is really a lot like death, although a positive way to experience it to be sure.

Never is this more evident than in the Aztec festival that became absorbed into Mexican Catholicism as the “Dia de los Muertos,” the “Day of the Dead.” Celebrated every November 2nd as an extension of the Catholic All Saint’s Day, it is a day of commemoration of the dead, and for the veneration of ancestors.

Because the Day of the Dead falls just a couple of days after the American holiday of Halloween, another death holiday, the two are often strongly associated in the American consciousness, although they are not precisely the same in concept.


Day of the Dead Fabric Pattern

The Dia de los Muertos has a whole line of signature folk art associated with it, particularly small figurines of skeletons engaged in everyday life activities. This is very disturbing to many people outside of Mexican culture. Skeletons dancing, skeletons drinking beer, skeleton bands playing, skeletal groom and bride getting married. It seems morbid, blasphemous in some way. Isn’t song and dance, and above all, marriage, supposed to be about life at its peak?

Well, yes. In fact, the Day of the Dead seems to be an echo of that medieval exhortation to remember that you will die. In other words, be always aware of your mortality, of the fleetness of all pleasure and happiness; always know the ones you love may leave you tomorrow. If you keep that in mind, your life will be lived with  more color, more joy, more immediacy. You will love more deeply.

In this fabric pattern with skeletal figures in the Day of the Dead tradition, a raucous party is ongoing; while some skeletons dance, another drinks a mug of beer. The skeleton on the lower left is so drunk he has fallen down.

Quod fuimos, estis; quod sumus, vos eritis

In medieval times, this idea emerged in the Legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead. In this legend, three huntsmen on a boar hunt become lost in the woods. They encounter three skeletal spirits and are terrified by them, but the skeletons explain they are the ancestors of the hunters. They complain that they have been forgotten and are no longer venerated. The dead spirits go on to say that they too were once pleasure-seeking, living only for the joys and delights of living. But now that they are dead, they regret a lack of consciousness on the value and preciousness of life. They tell the hunters “Quod fuimos, estis; quod sumus, vos eritis,” which means “You are, what we were; you’ll be, what we are” and by this they mean, the dead were once carefree living souls, and all living people will one day be dead. And so we should appreciate the connection between the dead and the living. We should remember we will be dead at some point, sooner or later. We should live our lives with this connection, this wisdom, always in mind. We should also remember the dead always, as we will want to be remembered when we join them.


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