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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

 

 

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

Death in Cambridge: The Egyptian bouquet

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Description from the accompanying label:

These plant remains were found within the linen wrappings around Nakhtefmut’s body. Recent study has shown that the ‘bouquet’ consists of garlic cloves, pierced and threaded on to strips of palm leaf, as well as a small onion.

(Fitzwilliam Museum)

I chose to feature this bouquet because I thought that it was quite beautiful that something from roughly 890 BCE has not only survived but also shows how the concept of floral additions (or non-floral for that matter) is by no means a new phenomenon when it comes to burial rites and rituals.

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has lots of gorgeous artefacts, some of which I will feature in future posts on this blog. I highly recommend that you visit it as it is a wonderful place with a huge range of collections from around the world.

The main image in this article was taken using an iPhone in low lighting. The bouquet is far more beautiful in real life.

 

Time to get personal: First aid and PTSD

I have just re-qualified as a first aid provider with St John Ambulance and this triggered some thoughts about sharing a story on here about my experience with death and PTSD as a first aider.

I won’t go into too much detail about the individual involved as they have surviving relatives and it would be unethical of me to reveal too much in a public forum such as this. However, I feel that sharing my experience is important as death is not always interesting/entertaining/fascinating. It can be scary, traumatic and difficult, regardless of how well adjusted to it you are.

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Burials and cannibals and flints, oh my!

14029147072_05ef3327af_oAs part of our trip to London for an excellent CSI event, Ryan and I decided to visit the Natural History Museum’s temporary exhibition (on until 28th September 2014) called Britain: one million years of the human story.

It was quite wonderful and had many gorgeous specimens that have been excavated from around Britain, covering the various settlers of Britain: Homo heidelbergensis, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens. These specimens ranged from contemporary wildlife that these species would have hunted, plants that would have grown in these areas, and the tools that these species would have made to survive their environments.

Of course, with this being a death blog, I do have some highlights from the exhibition which I hope will encourage you to go along and visit!

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