The festivities begin in the evening of October 31 and conclude on November 2. It is believed that spirits of the dead can reenter our world for a brief moment during this time. In homes, altars are made where photos and other items that evoke the memory of the deceased are displayed. Flowers, incense and images of saints are among the offerings made to the dead. Crucifixes, favorite foods, and images of saints can also be included. Families gather at cemeteries for a meal not only with the dead but also among them. Different cultures have similar traditions.
We believe, as scholars of death and rituals of mourning, that Dia de los Muertos is most likely related to ancient Aztec feasts. They honor the memory and continuity of generations by celebrating the reunion of those who have gone before.
While Western societies, especially the United States, are moving away the direct experience of a griever the rites, customs, and traditions of other cultures can offer valuable lessons.
Loss of Rituals
In the U.S., and in Europe as a whole, funerals were conducted in the home until the early 20th century. In some cases, the dying person will organize elaborate and stylized deathbed rites in advance of their death. According to French historian Philippe Aries, death rituals in the Western world declined between the 18th century and the 19th century.
The fear of death, and even the dead body, increased. The funeral business took over care of the dead as medical advances advanced. Death was increasingly hidden from the public eye. Death became frightening and threatening.
As morticians and scholars have noted, the American culture today lacks many of the formal mourning rituals which help people cope with loss.
Ancient cultures have their own traditions
The mourning customs of older cultures, on the other hand, prescribed specific patterns of behavior to facilitate the public expressions of grief and provide support for bereaved people. They also emphasized the importance of maintaining personal bonds with deceased relatives.
According to Aries, the Middle Ages were a time when death was a ritual that took place in public. The ritual included specific preparations and the presence of friends, family and neighbors as well as food, drink, music and games. These customs were social in nature, and they kept death “tame”, by enacting familiar ceremonies which comforted the mourners.
In contrast to the modern focus on controlling emotions and keeping grievance private, grief was expressed in a cathartic way.
In many cultures, the expression of emotions was not only expected but also performed in a ceremonial way. This can be seen as ritualized weeping and shrieking. The ancient Celts, for example, had a tradition of “death wail” which allowed grieving people to express themselves. Today, they are still practiced by various indigenous groups in Africa, South America and Asia, as well as Australia.
Two women of the Manobo/Dulangan tribe from Mindanao in the Philippines sing a song for the dead.
The traditional Irish and Scottish practice of ” wailing” or loudly weeping for the dead was also a vocal expression of mourning. These expressions of grief were powerful ways to express the impact that individual losses have on the community. Mourning became public and shared.
Since antiquity, and in parts of Europe up until recent times, it was common for professional women mourners to be hired by funeral directors to perform highly emotional laments.
These customs were part of a larger tradition of mourning that separated the dead from the living world and symbolised the transition into the afterlife.
Rituals for celebration
The dead were also honored through carnival-like celebrations. The dead were celebrated with elaborate feasts and games in ancient Greeks or Romans cultures.
Many cultures still practice these practices. In Ethiopia, the Dorze ethnic group sings and dances before, during, and after funerary rituals as part of communal ceremonies to defeat death and vindicate the deceased.
The Nyakyusa burial tradition, which is not far away in Tanzania, begins with wailing and then includes feasts. The participants are also required to dance at the funeral and flirt with each other in order to confront death by affirming life.
The Irish tradition of ” Merry Wake” is a mix of Mourning and Celebration, which honors the dead. In New Orleans, the African-American “jazz funeral” procession also combines sadness and celebration, as the solemn march for the deceased is transformed into music, dance and a party atmosphere.