Death in Cambridge: Dia de Muertos

We’ve featured Cambridge’s excellent Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology on Deathly Ponderings in the past because they do some excellent work and this month is no exception. While many Western countries tend to celebrate Halloween, Mexico (and parts of North America) celebrate Dia de Muertos.

The Museum displayed a wonderful Dia de Muertos altar space and we took some time to discuss the significance of its construction and the festival with a Mexican member of staff.

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Dia de Muertos

Celebrations start around the 28th October and reach their peak on 2nd November. It is a time for people to remember relatives, friends and ancestors in a celebratory way, with fun, laughter, music, food and music as opposed to the more sombre funeral rituals that many of us may be familiar with. The upbeat and rich Mexican tradition reflects the deeply held belief that no-one is truly dead until there isn’t anyone left alive to remember them.

Dia de Muertos has been celebrated for at least 3000 years and it brings together Aztec and Mayan religious traditions, with a more recent addition of Catholicism which was brought to Mexico by the Spanish conquistadors.

The altar

Traditionally, families will build an altar in their homes, with everyone taking part in decorating the space to honour their deceased relatives. Often altars will have three levels to represent the sky, earth and the underworld. The altars are then decorated with items, food and flowers that represent what the deceased enjoyed in life.

The lowest level is the first to be decorated. As a symbol of the underworld, flowers, candles and wood dust shapes are arranged to make a path or trail to guide the deceased’s soul to the altar.

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The middle level represents earth, or the world of the living. This is where the offerings and items that the person enjoyed in life are placed. These can include games, musical instruments, clothes, food, bread, drink and sweets. Food is often placed in baskets and traditional Mexican pots.

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The highest level represents the sky and is the spiritual level. A picture of the deceased is placed here with a glass of water and a cross made of salt or ashes.

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Activities

We were thrilled to see how many activities that the Museum were putting on over the Dia de Muertos festival period, from sugar skull mask making to storytelling for kids. They also had a small space for people to make tissue paper chrysanthemums, which are a traditional flower used on altars and represent death due to their flowering around the autumnal period.

We made two flowers for inclusion on the altar which was rather lovely, so we got to make our own ofrenda or offering to the person who the altar was made for: Gabriel García Márquez. The Columbian author died in April 2014 and was a national treasure for Mexico due to the fact that he spent a lot of his time there.

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Finishing off the day…Mexican style

To fully celebrate the ending of the wonderful Dia de Muertos festival (we had already celebrated Halloween in our own Celtic-tradition way), we thought we would support a local independent Mexican restaurant who do amazing burritos.

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We were thrilled to not only enjoy some amazing food, courtesy of Nanna Mexico, but we managed to get one of their last sugar skull cookies, as well as discovering an amazing altar on the upper floor of the restaurant space. The altar is dedicated to the original Nanna Mexico, Margarita, which was quite beautiful. Without her, Nanna Mexico wouldn’t exist and it is a truly special local secret of glorious food-based joy.

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Final bonus image: Nanna Mexico’s most central location has a wall of skulls in their stairwell. It is epic.

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Image credits: All images by Georgina. 
Text content greatly assisted on by MAA staff.
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3 thoughts on “Death in Cambridge: Dia de Muertos

  1. Thank you for this very informative description of the Day of the Dead festival. Interesting that its profile, and acceptance of it, seem to be increasing every year – well where I live anyway (Sydney).

    • Hi Ros! Thanks for your comment. Yes I have noticed that Day of the Dead celebrations are spreading across the globe. A lot of this is related to Mexican migrants bringing the culture with them, as well as some outreach by Mexican consulates in different countries.

      There is an element of controversy in part with people taking on the imagery of the festival without understanding the meaning behind it, but the way in which the death tradition has been taken on and adapted is fascinating all the same.

  2. Pingback: My Samhain | Room of Roots

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