Reveling in Death

The folks behind Tucson's CRIZMAC are also behind this delightful Día de los Muertos primer

Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is one of the most meaningful holidays in Mexican culture. It's a time during which celebrants gather in homes, cemeteries, churches, town squares and city streets to honor, pray for and commune with the spirits of departed friends and loved ones. It's believed that on these days, the deceased take time out from their otherworldly adventures to return briefly to the terrestrial sphere.

Day of the Dead is also a very festive occasion. Marked by feasting, drinking and revelry often raucous enough to raise the dead, it is not just a time of remembrance, but also a celebration—in all of its sensory splendor—of the joys of being alive.

In a beautifully illustrated book, Day of the Dead, Tucsonans Kitty Williams and Stevie Mack treat readers to a short but comprehensive survey of this evocative tradition. Combining vibrant photography with observations gleaned from their experiences in Mexico, Williams and Mack—the guiding spirits behind CRIZMAC, a local business committed to broadening cultural understanding—are able to convey a real sense of the feeling and flavor of Day of the Dead.

While Day of the Dead is essentially a Hispanic celebration, festivals honoring the departed are quite common across time and cultures, often in association with the fall harvest season. The authors write that Mexico's observance is primarily a fusion of European folk traditions, the Catholic feasts of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, and indigenous Meso-American beliefs and customs dating back to long before the Spanish conquest.

Skulls and skeletons, quite naturally, play a major role in Day of the Dead activities, and these age-old symbols of death are examined at length in this book. Writing that skeletons and skulls were a recurring motif in early Meso-American art and architecture, especially in connection with rites of human sacrifice, Williams and Mack note that, as part of Day of the Dead iconography, these often fancifully embellished images are not meant to be gruesome, but rather reflect a humorous and unflinching cultural attitude toward mankind's biggest bugaboo.

"Mexicans," they write, "would rather joke about death than fear it. Those leering skulls and the skeletons with their clattering bones are simply expressions of the Mexican sense of humor and an honest appraisal of human mortality."

In one of the book's most-interesting chapters, the authors focus on the life and work of José Guadalupe Posada, a 19th-century Mexican political cartoonist, whose signature creation, Catrina, has become Day of the Dead's most-recognized symbol. Originally designed to parody the attitudes of Mexico's upper classes during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, this garishly attired female skeleton is a familiar image throughout Mexico and is especially visible during Day of the Dead celebrations.

Williams and Mack explore other major elements of the tradition, including ofrendas, ornate altars constructed in homes and public spaces that serve as welcome centers for returning spirits; cemetery vigils, the all-night gatherings devoted to conviviality and commemoration; and comparsas, rowdy processions (like Tucson's own All Souls Procession) of costumed revelers who signal the end of Day of the Dead festivities by cavorting through the streets, entertaining the crowds and chasing away straggling souls who may be reluctant to return to their cosmic wanderings.

The book concludes with a section containing recipes for traditional Day of the Dead favorites such as pan de muerto (bread of the dead), mole sauce, dulces de calabaza (candied pumpkin) and café de la olla, a sweet, cinnamon-flavored coffee. This part also has instructions for making and decorating sugar skulls, whimsical creations that are often given like valentines to loved ones, signifying a connection that will survive death.

Brief as it is, the text of this volume is packed with a multitude of interesting details. But it is the photographs, with rich splashes of exuberant color, that draw readers into the heart of the festival. The book shimmers with depictions of lavishly ornamented ofrendas, cemeteries emblazoned with candlelight and flowers, tables heaped high with all manner of edible delights, elaborately masked and painted revelers, and, of course, skulls and skeletons galore.

This book is truly a pleasure to experience and will certainly expand readers' cultural horizons. It may also have a favorable influence on how we view life's most significant inevitability.

"The Day of the Dead is a joyous party," Williams and Mack tell us, "hosted by the living, with the dead as celebrated guests of honor. The festivities invite us all to accept death, mock it, and revel in it. And why not? There's certainly no escaping it."

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