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.

Death in Cambridge: Hugh Ashton’s Tomb

Hugh Ashton's Tomb, St John's College Cambridge

Hugh Ashton’s Tomb, St John’s College Cambridge

In the Chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge, stands a strange relic: the tomb of Hugh Ashton (?-1522). Ashton was a close associate of Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII. Margaret founded the College in 1511, two years after her death in 1509, with a bequest from her will. Ashton was a great benefactor to the College and was entombed in the original pre-Tudor Chapel. When that was knocked down to build the far larger Victorian Chapel, Ashton’s tomb was replanted in the new ante-chapel. What became of his body is unknown: was it moved with the tomb or buried underneath the Chapel foundations?

Ashton in life...

Ashton in life…

Ashton’s tomb is a wonderful example of a Cadaver Tomb: featuring a life-sized statue of Ashton as in life above, vibrantly painted, and an emaciated corpse below in plain grey stone, representing Ashton as he is in death. Cadaver tombs were only made for high-ranking nobles, and it was a sign of great respect to have one. With their richly decorated upper level, the tomb hints at the wealth and status Ashton enjoyed in life. With the decomposing corpse and undecorated sepulchre beneath, the tomb shows the futility and vanity of wealth and the inevitability of death, the great equalizer.

...And Ashton in death

…And Ashton in death

Ashton’s tomb acts as a large-as-life memento mori, reminding the visitor that they too will end up like Ashton’s corpse, regardless of nobility and influence in life. Some visitors to the Chapel today find it morbid, but in my experience school children who visit love it!