At Oxford’s Story Museum this weekend (29th and 30th October) there will be a specially constructed Mexican Day of the Dead Altar. As Genny Ramirez, one of the curators, writes below, this marks a very different approach to the dead than the European cultural tradition. (Full details of opening times under “Diary of Events” on this website)
The festival of the dead in Mexico is anything but sad. It is a joyful occasion, a celebration of life and memory. It draws on the belief that each year – on the 2nd of November- the souls of the dead return to enjoy the pleasures of life. In cities, celebrations are particularly exuberant and carnival-like . They bring together a great diversity of elements, from beliefs and practices inherited from pre-Hispanic times to European religious traditions and modern American popular culture. The ubiquitous figures of skulls and skeletons tend to mingle with Halloween pumpkins, Batman and Dracula.
In rural areas each household prepares la ofrenda, an offering of food and drink displayed on improvised altars. These are a feast for the senses: they are laden with delicious foods, perfumed with incense and marigold, and visually striking.
As opposed to what takes place in Europe, it is the dead that visit the living and not the other way round. All day-to-day activities are suspended during the festival to honour those very special guests and to establish a dialogue with them. Not only their habits, tastes and virtues but also their flaws are evoked. The living do not pray for the souls of the dead but to ask for their intercession. Paying respects without counting is therefore of the essence. Every village has stories about people who did not make an offering and were chastised by their deceased relatives.
The celebrations can last several days and start with a candlelit procession to the cemetery on the night of the 1st of November. There are so many candles that the cemeteries appear on fire.
To the European mind, death is a subject best avoided. In Mexico, you are familiarised with it from an early age. This close relationship is revealed in the language. There are dozens of expressions to refer to death in Mexican Spanish. A dead person was ‘taken away trainers first’, or ‘swallowed by the witch’, she ‘stretched her legs’ or ‘got cold’, ‘returned her gear’ and ‘took her leave’- to mention only a few of the ways of the dead.
It is impossible to describe the thousands of rituals performed in Mexico on the Day of the Dead. But they have in common an overwhelming aesthetic dimension: ephemeral compositions made of earth, flowers, candles, baskets, coloured paper, iron or wood crosses all attest to the vitality of the popular arts in Mexico. As collectors of Mexican crafts, we are delighted to be able to share some of our treasures with you this year again.
Last year at the Ashmolean’s Dead Friday, our public was mostly adult. This year, our altar is hosted by the Story Museum and we will be able to engage with children. But whatever your age, do come and visit us in the beautiful setting of this wonderful venue.
Elia and Genny, curators of the Altar of the Dead at the Story Museum.