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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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


Image credits: All images by Georgina. 
Text content greatly assisted on by MAA staff.

Isles of Scilly (Part One): Modern burials

For those of you that follow this blog (and our Facebook page) regularly, you will know that we went on a much deserved holiday. We went to the Isles of Scilly, which are situated just off of the Cornwall coast. They are a five island (with lots of smaller islets) archipelago and are quite wonderful.

The islands have been inhabited in some form or another since the Stone Age and before sea levels rose the islands were more of a large mass of land that could be walked across. Once cut off, the only way to travel from isle to isle is by boat. The history of the land is evidenced by its ancient stone monuments, which will be written about in Part Two of this small Isles of Scilly special report series.

For Part One, I wanted to write about the modern burial sites that I had the chance to visit while on the islands. Some islands are more populated and settled that others, with the largest populated island being St Mary’s. We decided to walk around the island using one of its many coastal walks to visit Old Town (New Town is the other side of the island and is where the main hub of the island is, with its quay and residential area).

The walk itself was gorgeous with fabulous landscapes and rock formations.


All we were expecting was to was visit Old Town and have a typically Cornish cream tea when we glanced behind us as we were coming off of the coastal path and spotted a small stone stile that led us unexpectedly to Old Town’s Norman-era church, with its gorgeous graveyard.


Due to the islands being surrounded by the sea and having a big fishing/shipping culture as a result, many of the gravestones had anchors on them, something I had never seen before.




All of the various stones and monuments were covered in the same types of lichen that we had seen on rocks overhanging cliff edges and near the sea, so it was lovely to see how nature was making a home among the stones.

One incredibly feature that we could not ignore was the absolutely enormous memorial to Augustus Smith, former governor of the Isles of Scilly during the 1800s. According to the plaque, the memorial had been built by the locals to commemorate the man. The memorial stands at an incredible height as you can see in the below image.


This next image was taken from the opposite side of the quite substantial bay that Old Town sits in. You can see the enormous monument on the right-hand side with another one at the very top. We did not get a chance to see how this belonged to as it was quite difficult to get to and we did not want to disturb the stones too much.


Another significant resident of this particular graveyard that we did not realise was there until we left was former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who was buried there in 1995.

With around 530 registered shipwrecks around the Isles of Scilly, it is of not surprise that we also found dedications to many crews and passengers of ships that had sunk. One of the strangest (to me at least) people to be memorialised in this way was Ann Cargill, a British opera diva from London. Born around 1760, she reached a very celebrated status in no time at all, until her promising career was cut short when her ship wrecked while she was returning to England after performing in India in 1784.

The ‘young life cut short’ coverage and the news reports of how she was found floating in the water gripped the imaginations of the public, with her being portrayed as such a tragic figure.

I thought it was quite nice how the Isles of Scilly not only took care of their own, with many generations of estabilished Scillonian families being buried there, but they also looked after the poor souls who came from the outside and did not belong, but who died in their waters. Quite wonderful really.

While St Mary’s is the most populated and established island, graveyards are not limited to just that single place. Many, if not all, of the populated islands have at least a small church. We found a small graveyard on the considerably less populated Bryher island. At only 2 km long and with just over 70 inhabitants, this is the smallest of all the islands, yet its tiny graveyard is no less beautiful.



If you ever have the chance to visit the islands, I would highly recommend it. They are gorgeous and like nothing else that I have ever experienced.

Until next time with Part Two…



Death in Cambridge: Egyptian burial care

Rather that highlight one particular artifact in this Death in Cambridge post, I wanted to show several. I think these items really show how the Egyptians engaged their dead in the burial process.

First up: the eyes



These are an absolutely fascinating addition to the Egyptian box coffins and the accompanying labels describe that the motif is used so that the deceased can see out of the coffin. This is just one of many instances where the dead are seen as an active part of the process.

Next: the Shabti



According to the signage, shabti (shawabti or ushabti) were small figures that were placed in tombs to ‘answer the call’ to perform various tasks on behalf of the deceased such as tilling or irrigating the land.

There are a wide assortment of types, such as the ones pictured, ranging from wooden to limestone version, with one even made out of faience which is a type of crushed quartz which is then glazed.

Following on from there: The burial of Khety

14029012112_d8da657ee6_kThese wonderful (if a bit blurry…working with an iPhone here) figures were found in the burial tomb of Khety in 1903.  The models are carrying out a mixture of tasks, such as running a granary and butchery in order to provide food and drink for Khety in the afterlife. Just off to the left-hand side, there are boats waiting to take Khety on a trip up the River Nile.

Finally: don’t lose your dead!

We’ve seen the stock image that represents a morgue a thousand times. A random pair of feet with a toe tag on them, making sure the deceased does not become separated from their documentation. This is by no means a new thing. The Egyptians used toe tags too, to ensure that their dead are accounted for.

14029207102_028f207c7e_kThese small wooden tags have the parentage, titles and age of the deceased written on them in demotic Greek and Egyptian. The ones pictured were for a pair of women. Tags were used to identify the deceased as cemeteries were often some distance from the family home of the deceased and so mix-ups could happen. So, definitely not a modern phenomenon by any stretch as these wooden tags date from around 30 BCE to 200 CE.

All of the items featured here are housed in the Fitzwilliam Museum as part of their extensive Ancient Egypt collection. I highly recommend a visit.



Sunday Sundries 3

Hello and happy Sunday! Welcome to another Sunday Sundries post, where we share interesting things that we have found from around the Internet this week.

First up is a powerful talk from David R. Dow. Prof. Dow is a death penalty defence lawyer  and runs a death penalty clinic at University of Houston Law Centre where law students help with representing individuals currently serving time on death row. He is also the founder of the Texas Innocence Network where law students investigate claims of actual innocence by Texas prisoners.

In this talk, Prof. Dow talks at length about the stages that a person goes through that can lead up to their execution, looking at both influences in their lives and upbringing as well as the legal process. A lot of what Prof. Dow speaks of relates to preventing murders. On Deathly Ponderings, we discuss representations of death and dying in many different parts of society, and murder is certainly not excluded from these discussions.

Next up we have something completely different from Prof John Troyer from the Unversity of Bath’s Centre for Death and Society who talks about the concept of Future Death. For those of you that went to the recent Death Salon UK, Prof Troyer gave a relatively similar talk so you might remember some of this. For those of you that were not able to attend, here’s a chance to catch up!

Finally, some fun links.

First up we have a superbly wonderful deathly Death Acceptance Reading List from the lovely folk at The Order of the Good Death. We’re certainly going to be adding some of these to our reading wishlists! What would you add to this list?

Next we have an interesting article from Mashable that looks at various business ventures that focus on death, disposal and remembrance. What would your entrepreneurial new deathly business idea be?

Lastly, a very powerful quote from writer Caitlin Moran and illustrated by the wonderfully talented Gavin Aung Thang, the person behind Zen Pencils. Certainly gives you something to think about when trying to be accepting of death and reality that that brings.

Image credit: Trey Ratcliff via Flickr Creative Commons

Death in Cambridge: Ascension Parish Burial Ground

Off of a busy main road that heads into the city of Cambridge there is a leafy little lane called All Souls.

compress1If you follow this straight pathway down, you will discover one of the best kept secrets of Cambridge’s deathly history: the Ascension Parish Burial Ground.

The city of Cambridge has several burials sites, including the main Cambridge City Cemetery and the American Cemetery and Memorial (which is the UK’s only WWII American Military Cemetery), but the Ascension space is quite different to these larger sites.


Established in 1857, Ascension was intended to accommodate a growing Cambridge in the Victorian era. It saw its first burial in 1869 and has since received around 2500 individuals into its modest one and a half acre site.

Apart from the fact that there are many famous people buried in Ascension, as well as several Nobel prize winners, the burial ground has been allowed to grow wild. While it is dutifully maintained, it is looked after in a sympathetic way that ensures that visitors experience the best kind of resting places: one that has been taken over by nature and is filled with life and beauty. No manicured lawns or garish mausoleums. Instead, you walk around the small burial ground and you are surrounded by trees, grasses, wild flowers and a multitude of birds and small mammals that call Ascension home. It is quite a beautiful experience to walk among the crumbling gravestones while watching tiny finches forage for food.


Finches are an incredibly appropriate bird to find in Ascension as two of Charles Darwin’s sons are buried there, as are many famous members of Cambridge University such as Wittgenstein and well-known criminologist Radzinowicz (after whom the University’s criminology library is named). Other interesting people such as further members of the Darwin family, and the sister of Leonard Woolf are buried in Ascension. There are many many more famed folk resting here, but they are often people who are renowned in their academic fields but perhaps not known in wider circles.

compress5Yet for all its history, Ascension is still actively used with some very recent headstones being erected. My personal favourites are of this Freemason couple, symbols and status very much on show.

compress6So if you are ever in Cambridge and want to get away from the hubbub of the city and all its tourist traps, head a little way outside of the main city itself and you will find this wonderful oasis, with nature and death living quite happily together. Forget the bigger celebrity cemeteries like Highgate in London…Ascension is its slightly quieter yet more intimate cousin.


Sunday Sundries

origin_3359385248As some of you more regular readers may already know, we have a Facebook page for Deathly Ponderings! We often share interesting articles, videos and other resources there as and when we find them on the Great Interwebs. So go and like us today!

However, rather than keep all of our found goodies on Facebook, we thought it would be nice to share a few on the blog too, so this will be the first of (hopefully) many Sunday Sundries posts where we share a few deathly nuggets that really interested us this week.

First up is a really interesting video from Hemant Mehta who blogs as The Friendly Atheist. A lot of death traditions and philosophies come from many different areas and cultures, with religious belief having a huge influence on how death is perceived and processed by humanity. However, we rarely hear about viewpoints on death from those who do not have this religious influence. So, have a listen to what Hemant has to say. It is certainly an interesting addition to the deathly discourse in society.

Next up is a fascinating TED talk from philosopher Stephen Cave who talks about our focus on immortality, among other things. He is a great speaker and really does take his audience on a journey through humanity’s interactions with death and what that means for us as a species.

Let us know what you thought of these videos. Also, if you find anything fun and deathly, pass it on! We’d love to see it!

Image credits: Todd Hall (header image) & Jes (bird skull)
Both via Flickr Creative Commons

Deathly Reading: Six Feet Over

untitledFrom time to time, we will post short reviews of death-related books we’ve been reading and found interesting. The first one of these is a book I’m currently reading: Six Feet Over: Adventures in the Afterlife by Mary Roach, also the author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (which sounds amazing but I have yet to read).

Six Feet Over is, in Mary Roach’s own words:

A book for people who would like very much to believe in a soul and an afterlife for it to hang around in, but who have trouble accepting these things on faith.

But it is so much more than just an exploration of the philosophical idea of a soul. Six Feet Over is an utterly hilarious and engaging whistle-stop-tour of the quacks, hoaxes and genuine researchers who have attempted to prove the existence of life after death. Everything from Hindu reincarnation to Victorian mediums and modern scientific studies of near-death experiences is covered, by way of diversions into neuroscience, the Moulin Rouge ‘Fartiste’ La Petomane, and fun facts about sea urchins, some of whom use their sucker-tipped feet to hold seaweed parasols over themselves for shade.

In short, this is a book for those whose curiosity knows no bounds and are interested in everything, as Mary Roach herself clearly and enthusiastically is.

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