Traditional celebrations of the Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, are common in California, complete with the skulls, skeletons, and marigolds that are a part of traditions in remembrance of deceased family members and friends. Many celebrate this holiday on November 1, or 2, or even as a multi-day holiday extending from October 31 to November 6. Observed primarily in Mexico and other Latin American countries, we can trace its origins back to a combination of Aztec and Catholic influences. Participants make home altars with favorite foods and photos of the deceased, visit the graves of loved ones, and gather with families and friends to share special holiday foods and memories about those who are no longer with us. Music, dancing, face painting, and costumes are often part of celebrations, as the holiday is also about appreciating life while we are still part of the living.
This year, my awareness of the Day of the Dead and my memories of loved ones who have passed on have been particularly strong. Several of my beloved family members have died in the past few years, including one very recently (and even more sadly, much too soon).
While pondering death-related themes, my mind has roamed from the traditions ancient people followed in honoring their ancestors, to the new customs that develop as cultures grow and change. In this post, we will take a fast trip to look at a few examples in the Americas, beginning with the ancient Andean practices of including the dead in their families through mummification, and ending with street parades in Mexico City and the death-defying feats of James Bond.
Ancient Andean Traditions
Honoring deceased ancestors by preserving their bodies and keeping them close as part of the family has deep roots. Many ancient cultures have prepared mummies, especially societies living under extremely dry or cold climates, from Egypt to the Andes.
The earliest mummies found in the Andes were made by Chinchorro people, who lived in the Atacama Desert along the Pacific coast of modern southern Peru and northern Chile. The deliberate mummification practices of the Chinchorro date back to around 5,800 BCE, and about 1,000 years earlier than similar Egyptian practices. Many Chinchorro mummies, especially those of children, were apparently kept above ground for many years and revered as members of a family After a body became desiccated in the extremely arid climate, the bones were reassembled and held together with cords and canes, clay was used to restore the face, and a wig of human hair placed on the skull. The bodies were covered with an ash paste paint, colored black with manganese or red from red ochre. Some of the mummies were painted repeatedly, indicating they were kept on display. Some were covered in fabric shrouds skillfully woven by hand from vegetal fibers (looms were not used this early in time).
People of the Paracas culture, circa 800 BCE to 100 BCE, also lived in an arid coastal desert region farther north in modern Peru. They wrapped their high-status dead in thick mummy bundles using intricately embroidered cotton and alpaca wool textiles. To make these bundles, the bodies were placed in a fetal position with the knees pulled up, and then extensive lengths of colorful fabric covered with tiny embroidery stitches were wrapped around and around the body, similar to how thread is wound onto a sewing machine bobbin. Some of the wrapping cloths were created on a massive scale, with one that archaeologists found measuring 11 by 85 feet (3.4 by 26 m); many thousands of hours must have been required to weave and embroider this piece. Multiple wrappings of plain cloths were used as outer layers to increase the bulk of the bundles for the most important of the deceased, making them “larger than life” even in death, and presumably better protected.
In the Inca world, the mummies of dead rulers played an active role in the lives of the living. It was believed the Inca emperor was immortal, so logically, they treated the mummy as if it was still alive. After death, the carefully prepared mummies of emperors would continue to be housed with all their worldly wealth in their palaces in Inca Cusco. The royal mummies were consulted (through mediums) for opinions on important matters of state, and displayed to the public several times each year during special ceremonies. When not needed in Cusco, the mummies would retire to their country estates. On ceremonial occasions, people shared the best food and drink with the mummies. Retainer-priests, who acted as conduits for the dead, conveniently consumed the actual items (a tough job–but someone had to do it). It appalled Spanish eyewitnesses in the 16th century to observe what they considered idolatrous Inca worship, and so they did all that they could to end these practices.
Day of the Dead Trivia
Fast forward to 2015, when a fabulously exciting opening sequence of the James Bond film, Spectre, featured a crowded and colorful Day of the Dead parade that was filmed in the historical center of Mexico City. In classic Bond style, Daniel Craig wears a skeleton costume and mask while walking through mobs of revelers, then survives the collapse of a building, chases a villain through parade crowds, and finally fights to take over control of a helicopter as it roars and twists above the packed city center below (wisely, the helicopter was not filmed over the thousands in the city, and was patched in later). The parade scene reportedly required 1,500 extras, 250,000 paper flowers, and 10 giant skeletons. Previously, no such parade had taken place in Mexico City, but after the interest stirred up by the film and because of popular demand, the federal and local authorities organized a Día de los Muertos parade to take place on October 26, 2016, in the Zócalo – and about 250,000 people attended. A parade on this holiday has now become an enduring and popular Mexico City tradition.
You can watch some of the opening scenes of Spectre here: https://www.007.com/day-of-the-dead-sequence/ and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jvL-5bJyyV0 . I saw this movie in 2015, and while I remember little about the plot, the Day of the Dead sequence was unforgettable!
The many ways that people acknowledge and honor the universal experience of death continue to evolve.
“Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.” ― Isaac Asimov
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