From the beginning of time, man has felt the need to explain the mystery of life and death. Many
civilizations and cultures have created rituals to try and give meaning to human existence.
Can we do something while living so we can enjoy "life" after death?
These are some of the questions man has asked himself in order to understand our
finite existence on earth.
To the indigenous peoples of Mexico, death was considered the passage to a new life and
so the deceased were buried with many of their personal objects they though would be needed in the hereafter. Frequently their pets were sacrificed so they
would accompany their masters on their long journey.
El Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead has been celebrated in
Mexico, and other Latin countries, since pre-Columbian times. This is a very special ritual, it is the day in which the living remember their departed
relatives. Sometimes, when people of other cultures hear for the first time about the celebration of the Day of the Dead, they mistakenly think it must be:
gruesome, terrifying, scary, ugly and sad. Nothing further from the truth, Day of the Dead is a beautiful ritual in which Mexicans happily and lovingly remember
their loved relatives that have died. Much like when we go to a graveyard to leave some lovely flowers on a tomb.
On November 1st and 2nd Mexico celebrates the Day of the Dead, and there are two very
special places where this ritual is specially impressive: Mixquic, a small town in Mexico City, and in Janitzio, a charming little island
in the state of Michoacan.
The first inhabitants of Michoacan, the Purepechas, thought
that Patzcuaro lake was so extraordinarily beautiful that it was the door to heaven and through it the gods came down to earth.
Like the rest of the pre-Columbian civilizations, these people succumbed to the Spanish
conquerors, which imposed their customs, their language and their Catholic religion. The natives acquired these new cultural elements, blended and adapted them
to their own culture; from this fusion new beliefs and ritual were born, such as the Celebration of the Day of the Dead.
Michoacan is probably one of the most representative of the merging of the
two cultures, observed in their magnificent Spanish architecture, its spacious plazas or squares, and their folklore and religious fervor of their traditions.
Towards the last days of October, the entire region prepares for the great fiesta of
Los Días de Muertos, the Days of the Dead. The square fills with stands that offer all types of colorful figures allusive to death, the most popular
made of sugar.
Markets are filled with the cempasúchil flower; this orange marigold was
the flower that the Aztecs used to remember their dead by. Its color represents the tones of earth and is used to guide the souls to their homes
Many families grow their own cempasúchil, believing that doing so is more
appropriate for their offerings. Through their work and their care, these flowers grow and will finally adorn their ofrendas and tombs.
Very early in October, all over the country, bakeries offer the delicious Pan de
Muerto, Day of the Dead bread, made with flour, butter, sugar, eggs, orange peel, anise and yeast. The bread is adorned with strips of dough simulating
bones and at the top a small round piece of dough that symbolizes teardrops. These breads are placed on the altars or ofrendas, and are also taken to
the tombs in the graveyard.
Another traditional dish prepared for the celebration is the tasty Calabaza en
Tacha, Sweet Pumpkin, a dessert prepared with pumpkin, cinnamon, and piloncillo, dark sugar cones.
Janitzio is one of the islands on lake Patzcuaro, with 1,500
inhabitants. Little white houses all with red tile roofs crowd the island, and at the summit the stone statue of one of the fathers of Mexico’s
Independence, José María Morelos, dominates the view.
To get to the island it is necessary to take launches that constantly go to and from
Janitzio, carrying and bringing passengers as well as provisions and merchandise.
There is no busier times for the launches that on the Days of the Dead.
On the eve of El Día de Muertos, the boats are loaded with people that are
very busy taking the flowers and essential articles for the celebrations.
The island is dressing up with beauty and mysticism!
On the lake, one can also see the fishermen with their traditional nets that grace
the view. They are called Butterfly Nets. Watching the fishermen go out in groups is a bewitching spectacle, particularly during the early ours of the morning,
with the mist and the calming stillness of the lake.
The people of Janitzio have conserved this form of fishing, as well as
other millenarian customs and traditions that are part of the enchantment of this island. Especially distinctive is the way in which the women dress , and their
methods of cooking.
In addition to fishing, they complement their economy with the production of handicrafts
for sale to the many visitors that come to Janitzio, and in many small inns they offer the delicious pescado blanco, white fish, unique
to Lake Patzcuaro.
Many of the locals work and study outside the island. Since there is only an elementary
school on the islet, when the kids go on to high school they have to attend schools in Patzcuaro. You can imagine how striking it is to see the
young students on their rowboats, crossing the lake early in the morning to get to school.
By October 31st, all the houses and shops, as well as the docks are decorated with
cempasuchil flowers and fruits from this region. The whole community participates enthusiastically in the preparations of this festivity!
Ofrendas are set up in the houses for their dead relatives. Generally
ofrendas are set up on a table covered with a tablecloth and papel picado. They are decorated with sugar skulls, candles, cempasuchil
flowers, and paper mache skeletons. Plates with the favorite foods of their dead relatives are also set on the ofrenda. Some have also liquor and
cigarettes. On the ofrendas for the deceased children they place toys in addition to the food.
Characteristic of this region are the wooden arches that the families create and adorn
with cempasuchil and fruits for the tombs in the cemetery. A very interesting tradition is that for the first three years that follow the passing away
of a person, every November first, it is the godparents of the deceased who decorate the arch. When they finish, they go to the parents’ house and lovingly
offer it to them.
On the morning of November 1st, the ceremony in honor of
the Angelitos takes place in the cemetery.
The little angels or angelitos are the children that died and that could
never experience the "happiness and sorrows" of adulthood.
Very early the bells of the church start ringing, calling children’s souls and the living
relatives that will attend the ceremony.
At 6:00 A.M., in the small chapel of Janitzio, mass has already
begun. Remember, this is fundamentally a Catholic ritual. After mass, the women and children go to the graveyard to clean and decorate the tombs. They
bring with them flowers, bread and fruits in baskets covered with napkins that they embroidered themselves, as well as the copal, incense, that they will burn so
that the aroma will help guide the returning souls.
Each family brings with them in honor of their deceased relatives.
A beautiful view enriches this mystical moment… in the distance, from the graveyard the
fishermen can be seen with their canoes starting their working day. The lake is so peaceful, as if welcoming the spirits that are returning home.
Slowly, and quietly, the cemetery begins to fill up. The music of a band can be
heard slowly approaching the graveyard. It is a family that is carrying an arch accompanied by the band. Their son died a few months before, and this
morning is the first Day of the Dead that they will be honoring him. This is why they have brought a band with them.
Music resonates fills the burial ground.
Around nine in the morning the ritual in honor of the deceased children ends. In a couple
of hours, at nightfall, the most impressive celebration will begin, the ritual in which the souls of the deceased adults are honored.
It is surprising how in such a little island, thousands and thousands of visitors
will arrive in order to witness this beautiful rite.
In the preceding hours, the carpenters laboriously work to set a stage for the
folkloric dances that will be performed as part of the celebrations.
At night, with everything ready, the dances begin. The Danza de los Viejitos,
Dance of the Old Men, representative dance of this region. In pre-Hispanic times this dance was performed as a ritual honoring the Sun.
Another popular dance is the Pescado Blanco, White Fish, through
which the inhabitants of Janitzio express their gratitude to the lake, since fishing is their most important economical activity.
Also at night, as a way of expressing their gratitude to God for all the blessings
they have been given, the fishermen go out to the lake with their canoes, lighting the way with torches and carrying out an impressive ritual with their butterfly
At midnight it is the graveyard of the island the place in which living and dead will
reunite once again.
The bell at the entrance rings all night long, calling the souls to return and enjoy the
splendid ceremony. It is mainly the women and children who silently find the tombs of their relatives, on which they place the lovely embroidered napkins and set
candles, the flowers and food that their dead so much enjoyed when alive.
This is how the night goes by, with prayers and chants from the women and children, while
the men silently observe what goes on. Their songs and prayers are elevated to the sky, begging for the eternal rest of the souls and for the happiness
of the living.
The essence of this beautiful ritual is to lovingly and happily remember the dead
relatives, their life, and in this way, give meaning and continuity to human existence.
The Day of the Dead is a grand celebration of life itself!