Beyond The Sugar Skull — What We Can Really Learn From The Day Of The Dead

Photo: Miguel Tovar/LatinContent/Getty Images.
This article was originally published on November 1, 2016.
It feels like a year doesn't go by without a misguided celebrity donning a Día de los Muertos-inspired look for Halloween. Without fail, these costumes are met with an outcry from social media and members of the Latin American community, calling them out for cultural appropriation and insensitivity to the true meaning of the holiday. These accusations are completely on point (Reminder: The identities of others are not costumes), but now it seems all conversation about Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead is centered around this outrage cycle — which in the end really doesn't do justice to the true meaning of the holiday itself.
So, instead, let's actually take a closer look at the history, traditions, and modern-day significance of Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Davíd Carrasco, the Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America in the Harvard Divinity School, tells Refinery29 that the Day of the Dead is "one of the ways Mexicans affirm their rich and complex history of mixing Spanish, Catholic, Indigenous, and contemporary symbols and family life." Throughout history, death has played a role Mexican culture, from the Mesoamerican traditions of preparing offerings to ancestors to Roman Catholic celebrations of All Souls' Day. As the holiday has been adopted by Central and South American countries, the variety of influences on its celebrations have widened even more.
We can see this unique melding of beliefs and symbols most clearly in the altars people build for the holiday. Regina Marchi, PhD, associate professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University and author of Day of the Dead in the USA, explains that they may feature flowers, food offerings, incense, icons of Catholic saints, rosary beads, and photos of the deceased. It's more about what is being observed than how — rather than assigning the Day of the Dead's celebrations to any one faith, those who observe it can take many different routes toward honoring their dead.
Other than altar-building, Day of the Dead traditions may include decorating the gravesites of loved ones, holding cemetery vigils, and celebrating as a community in city squares. People even dress up as La Catrina, Santa Muerte, and other cultural icons associated with death. (These are, of course, the looks that end up getting appropriated by people who don't actually celebrate the Day of the Dead.)
Dr. Marchi notes that there are non-Latinos who observe the holiday without turning it into an insensitive fashion statement: "People of different races and ethnicities are feeling inspired by Día de Los Muertos celebrations to create their own home altars in remembrance of their loved ones." She explains that, without a distinct set of days to remind people to reflect on the dead, some may "feel that modern life leaves little time to connect with memories of our deceased loved ones."
As we've discussed previously, most people tend to think about death more often than they'd care to admit. If there's one thing we can responsibly learn from Día de los Muertos celebrations, it's that talking about death and treating it like a natural part of life is a wonderful way to celebrate those we've lost. And making death part of your personal spiritual reflections can help alleviate any fears or anxieties you may have about it.
So, next year, let's skip over the cultural ignorance and go right to thinking about the role of death in our communities, families, and personal lives. That is, after all, what the Day of the Dead is actually about. As Dr. Marchi says, this holiday serves as an important reminder "to maintain connections with the deceased in thoughts and prayers and set aside time each year to honor the life of deceased loved ones... Just because someone passes from this earthly life doesn't mean they stop being an integral part of the family or community."
Welcome to Death Week. This week, we'll attempt to unpack our feelings, fears, and hang-ups about death, dying, and mourning. We’ll do our best to leave no gravestone unturned.