Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Dia de los Muertos: Hospitality for the Dead

Dia de los Muertos Altar;  San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, MX
(click to enlarge photos)

Mexican altars for Dia de los Muertos range from the very simple to to the elaborate. Yet, they all share a single purpose: offering hospitality to the dead and including them, for a brief period of time in the world of the living as not just memories but really present.  This unique outlook on death forms a sharp contrast to attitudes to the dead outside of the Latin American world where the dead are remembered with respect and their memories treasured, but where the prospect of the dead actually being present makes people uncomfortable. 

For the Days of the Dead, November 1 (children) and 2 (adults) in Mexico everything is done to entice the dead back to their former homes on earth and a big part of the effort is food.The living strive to throw a great party for the dead with the things that they used to enjoy eating and drinking in life.

Altar at Los Arcos Restaurant, Izamal, MX

The altars, altares in Spanish, regardless of how elaborate they may be are all just tables as can be seen in the photos below; we tend to lose sight of the fact that all altars in all religions are  tables meant to serve sacrifices to the gods.  The altars for Dia de los Muertos serve food that the living sacrifice for the comfort of the dead, who although they are not gods, are the honorees of these days. In fact, in the language of the Yucatec Maya, the name for Dia de los Muertos, is Hanal Pixam which translates in Spanish as Comida de las Animas, or food for the souls.

Small Table Altar, Izamal, MX

Decorative for Dia de los Muertos in form of a table altar, Playa del Carmen, MX

The observance of Dia de los Muertos varies throughout Mexico from the very traditional as documented in my video shot in Chamula Chiapas  to more typical observations of the holiday as seen in this video from San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas  Over the years, the Oct. 31st celebration of Halloween has come to be included in the holiday.


In each area of Mexico, the holiday takes on characteristics of the specific locale. These palm-leaf covered palapa altars are typical in the Yucatan, where the palapa is a basic unit of architecture.  The altars are placed within the palapa rather than being out in the open air.  The one below is from the cemetery in Playa del Carmen in the state of Quintana Roo, which is located in the eastern part of the Yucatan peninsula.

Playa del Carmen, MX
Each year a traditional altar like the one in the photo above is built in Playa's cemetery and is the only one there.  

Dia de los Muertos altar inside the above palapa

Palapa altar for Dia de los Muertos, Cozumel, MX

Yet, among all of the different twists on observing the Days of the Dead, usually Oct. 31-Nov. 2,  and in some places such as the traditional Mayan communities of Quintana Roo for the week following Nov.1, there is one thing they share in common: food. Dead souls are believed to enjoy food and drink as much as the living, although they partake of it in a different way, through inhaling its essence.  In fact, Hanal Pixam, the Yucatec Maya name for Dias de los Muertos, translates as Comida de las Animas or food of the souls.

In mid-October throughout Mexico begin offering the special foods associated with the holiday. One is  pan de muertos, bread of the dead, and these are sold throughout Mexico.

Pan de Muertos

If you look closely you can see the cut-out pieces of dough that resemble bones.
Along these lines, other foods typically seen during this holiday are skull-shaped
candies made of sugar. Sugar skulls, inscribed with the names of the deceased on the forehead, are often eaten by a relative or friend.

Sugar Skull, Playa del Carmen, MX

Sugar Skulls, Playa del Carmen, MX

Various sorts of other sweets are put on the altars for the enjoyment of the deceased, such as the preserved pumpkins seen in the photo below.

Preserved pumpkins in Playa del Carmen store

The dead have to be properly enticed back to the world of the living or they may not show up.  Engaging the dead person's  sense of smell is critical in guiding them back to the world of the living and in assuring that they will come to the altars to partake of the feasts offered.  Copal incense is burned in containers and sweet-smelling wood is put out as well to help them find their way.

Coal incense in Playa del Carmen store

Items for Dia de los Muertos in Playa del Carmen, MX

By far, the most unique food for Dia de los Muertos comes from the Yucatan and is know as  pibes or mucbil pollo.  This is a kind of tamale that is wrapped in banana leaves and roasted underground, the domain of the dead. I was told that the delicious-smelling steam coming from the hot food is what entices the dead.  

Pibes on altar in Restaurante Los Arcos, Izamal, Yucatan, MX

But, the good news is that you don't have to wait until you are dead to enjoy pibes.  Although it is placed on altars as an offering, as on the above altar from Izamal, it is a delicious food for the living and happens to be one of my favorite Yucatan foods. Personally, I look forward to Dia de los Muertos for my annual helping.

Pibes from Restaurante Los Arcos, Izamal, Yucatan

Not only food, but alcohol is included on altars as offerings to the dead (and the living).
In Chiapas, for instance, it is customary that the living drink the very high-proof local alcohol called pox, (pronounced "posh") that is also offered to the dead and it is an insult to refuse a glass of pox.

Beer for Day of the Dead in grocery store, Playa del Carmen, MX

Altar, Chiapas

The result is a party-like atmosphere in the graveyard, a place most of us would see as
a solemn venue.  Not, the case in Mexico, where the dead are welcomed with music, joy, food and drink.

Dia de los Muertos, San Juan Chamula, Chiapas

  The result is a party-like celebration in the grave-yard, a place that most of us would see as a very solemn venue.  Not the case in Mexico, where the dead are welcomed with music, joy and of course, food.  In some places the holiday is observed in a more sedate way, as it was in this lovely celebration in the cemetery of Playa de Carmen, MX this year.  There, I was fortunate enough to be invited into a family plot by the family's gracious matriarch who had a group of musicians serenade the tombs of two of her children.  The peace the celebration gave to her and the rest of her family was evident; everyone in the family, living and dead, was together again. 

Dia de los Muertos Celebration, Playa de Carmen, MX

No comments:

Post a Comment