AG: “In the Mexican culture, they believe that our ancestors that have passed come back to the land of the living for two nights. We build ofrendas, which are little, a shrine is not the right word, but you put all their favorite foods, pictures of them. Alter is a more colloquial term.
In our culture, we believe that people die three deaths. The first is when we physically die, when our bodies just stop working, our hearts stop, whatever. The second is when we’re lowered into the ground and buried, so we’re out of sight, or cremated, I guess. And the third one is when there’s no one left to remember us. There’s three deaths or three phases of death.
Usually, my parents put up an alter and we put up pictures of people who have passed in our family with a bunch of flowers, candles, because the candle represents their spirit, essentially. Sometimes we’ll go to, they have a cemetery, called Hollywood Forever Cemetery, and they put a bunch of marigolds up. They do a bunch of alters, ofrendas all over, and you can just visit and pay your respects, and just really reflecting on the lives of the people who have come before.”
AG is a 20-year-old Mexican-American college student from Los Angeles. She celebrates this holiday, which falls on the first two days of November, with her family every year. On this holiday, the living reunite with the spirits of their deceased ancestors. AG said that in comparison to melancholic death rituals like funerals, Dìa de los Muertos is a happy event which celebrates the people who passed away rather than mourning their deaths. She explained that according to Mexican belief, the first two deaths, physical death and burial, are inevitable. However, the third death, which she describes as “dying in the land of the dead” where individuals “fade into oblivion,” can be avoided by remembering individuals who passed away. Dìa de los Muertos functions to prevent this final death, as AG explained, “you preserve their memory through storytelling, through folklore, thereby keeping them alive through their spirits.”
I find the Mexican folk belief in a realm between life and obsolescence very compelling. Many ideologies delineate life and death as two incompatible states of being which never intersect, so that once a person has passed away, the living have no way of accessing them. This boundary blurring view of life and death places power into the hands of the living, so that there are specific things that they can do and practices that they can carry out in order to come into contact with their lost loved ones again. This power of being able to reconnect with the dead comes with responsibilities, however, where one must continually honor and memorialize their loved one’s lives if they want to maintain this connection. The insistence upon keeping a person’s memory alive after their passing, which prevents the deceased from entering the third stage of death and disappearing, conveys how deeply one’s ancestry and elders are valued and respected in Mexican culture.
Dìa de los Muertos exemplifies the ritualization of liminality, where specific traditions and extraordinary practices are carried out at the time that the realm of the dead and the realm of the living overlap. That the holiday is comprised more of celebration than of mourning shows the comfort found in the belief that physical death doesn’t mean spiritual death.