Mexico prepares for an unusual Day of the Dead with closed cemeteries

22/10/2020

The Day of the Dead is a traditional Mexican celebration that aims to honor the dead. On this day, many families spend the night in cemeteries to receive the deceased, who according to tradition, return for a few hours to the world of the living.

The cemeteries will close their doors between October 31 and November 2, to prevent crowding in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. Image: Flickr
The cemeteries will close their doors between October 31 and November 2, to prevent crowding in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. Image: Flickr

But this year, the country is preparing for the most emblematic festivity of the country to be something unusual with the closing, between October 31st and November 2nd, of the pantheons of the capital's metropolitan area to prevent crowds in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. The different authorities of the Valley of Mexico, a geographic region that includes Mexico City and the States of Mexico, Hidalgo and Tlaxcala, announced the closure of the cemeteries.

On this occasion, neither the neighbors nor the more than 700,000 national and international tourists that flood the cemeteries will be able to admire this holiday, and the authorities have asked that the citizens celebrate it in their homes.

For its part, Jardines del Recuerdo, one of the largest private cemeteries in Latin America, also announced that it will close its doors from October 30 to November 2 to avoid crowds, something that already happened on Mother's Day (May 10).

However, in some parts of the country, it was decided to maintain the visits to the cemeteries due to the importance of the income generated, as is the case of the western state of Michoacán, with places such as Pátzcuaro or Quiroga, where the tradition is deeply rooted.

The nights of November 1st and 2nd are the culminating moment of the Day of the Dead, the most universal Mexican festivity, which was declared in 2008 as the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

According to the tradition, which has pre-Hispanic roots, the souls of the deceased join this gathering to embrace their loved ones and enjoy the food they bring to them in this colorful festivity.

What the Day of the Dead offering in Mexico means

It is a fundamental element of this celebration in which the bereaved have the belief that the spirit of their deceased returns from the world of the dead.

For Mexicans, the Day of the Dead celebration is one of the most important in the religious and cultural calendar, as it is a tradition derived from syncretism resulting from long cultural processes.

The celebration is so transcendent in cultural terms that in 2003, UNESCO declared the indigenous festivity dedicated to the dead in Mexico as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

According to the text 'La festividad indígena dedicada a los muertos en México', edited by the National Council for Culture and the Arts (formerly Conaculta, now the Ministry of Culture), the complex cultural framework around the dead has materialized a symbolic and ritual architecture in the different cultural spheres of the Mexican Republic.

This is expressed in an infinite number of plastic manifestations, many of them of an "ephemeral" nature, such as the splendorous arches of cempasúchil (symbolic flower of the celebration) and the cosmogonic representations implicit in the arrangement and logic of the offerings; in the ceremonial culinary; in the organization of ritual spaces, as well as in dance, music and song.

The same text points out that since the 1940s it has been said that Mexico is an eschatological and morbid country; that its inhabitants mock death, play with it and eat it virtually converted into sugar candies; it has even been said that in Mexico even death is sweet.

All the peoples of the world have offered food to their close dead, to the glorious ancestors and to the protective gods of death; this is nothing new. Both ancient and current cultures continue to do so, what has varied is the form of ritual, time and space where the offering is made.

Although it has been insisted that it was the Egyptians and Tibetans who dedicated an important part of their lives and celebrations to the "beyond", we know that the fear of death is and has been universal and that the difference lies in the fact that those cultures left writings that have been preserved and translated into our languages, and that they permeated almost all the religions that preceded them, including the Catholic religion.

It is a fundamental element of this celebration in which the bereaved have the belief that the spirit of their deceased returns from the world of the dead to live with the family on that day, thus consoling and comforting them through loss.

In the celebration of the Day of the Dead, the offering has become the tangible element of such syncretism, shaped as follows: it is placed in a room, on a table or shelf whose levels represent the strata of existence. The most common are the two-level altars, representing heaven and earth, while the three-level altars add the concept of purgatory to this vision.

There are also the seven-level altars that symbolize the steps necessary to reach heaven and thus rest in peace. This is considered the traditional altar par excellence. In its elaboration, certain basic elements must be considered. Each of the steps is lined with black and white cloth and has a different meaning.

On the first step is placed the image of a saint to whom one is devoted. The second step is intended for the souls in purgatory; it is useful because through it the soul of the deceased obtains permission to leave that place in case he is there.

Salt should be placed on the third step, an element that symbolizes the purification of the spirit for the children in purgatory. In the fourth step, the main character is another central element of the feast of the Day of the Dead: the bread, which is offered as food to the souls that pass through it. In the fifth is placed the food and favorite fruits of the deceased.

On the sixth step are the photographs of the deceased and those who are remembered through the altar. Finally, the seventh step is placed a cross formed by seeds or fruits, such as hawthorn and lime.