Day of the Dead
October 29, 2003
The cult of the dead is as old as history itself. Different feelings-fear, respect and love-are present in this cult.
This ambivalence is reflected by two totally different funereal practices: one aimed at preserving the dead body by mummification, for example, and the other aimed at getting rid of the body as quickly as possible by burning it.
Since time immemorial, burial practices, despite their different character, have been a sign of our belief in man's immortality. Death was regarded as a continuation of earthly life. As a result, the deceased were equipped with everything that might be useful to them in their new life.
Another sign of belief in the afterlife were holidays dedicated to the dead. Initially they were celebrated frequently, first a few days after the death and then on its anniversary. Additionally, public holidays to commemorate the dead were celebrated several times a year, in spring or in autumn, for instance.
All Saints' Day, which falls on Nov. 1, is for Polish Catholics a day in which they celebrate and revere the saints canonized by the Church. Nov. 2, All Souls' Day, is a day of hope. On this day, people place flowers on graves, symbolizing the continuing life of the dead, and light candles, a symbol of faith's victory over death. This custom has been adopted by representatives of other religious denominations who have lived in Poland for generations-candles appear at this time of the year at Jewish, Lutheran and even Muslim cemeteries.
Hundreds of thousands of people visit Warsaw's cemeteries on the first days of November. After dark, the cemeteries, lit by candles, present an unusual sight and acquire a unique atmosphere of calmness, introspection and reflection.
But there are cultures where this holiday has a more festive character. The Mexican All Souls' Day-Dia de los Muertos-is celebrated across the country by rural populations, especially Indians. Their ceremonies are rooted in a cultural tradition dating back to the pre-Columbian era.
After the Spanish conquest, the ceremonies and rites practiced by native Mexicans were influenced by the All Souls' Day tradition imported to the Indian world by the newcomers from Europe. The Mexican Day of the Dead celebrating these days is a mixture of the Iberian-Christian and pre-Columbian-Indian traditions. On this day, shop windows are decorated with images of death in the form of skulls. Bakeries sell huge amounts of panes de muertos (bread for the dead) in the form of skulls, angels and skeletons. Altars are placed in homes in the evening. This is when the souls come to earth to visit their relatives who await them, decorate the altars to pay tribute to them and make offerings.
Another form of All Souls' Day is Samhain, or Halloween, the Celtic New Year, celebrated on Oct. 31. This day has become a festival of death. On this day, the Celtic gods invoked the spirits of six bad people who died in the previous year. The bad spirits rose and traveled from village to village to bother people. You could fool them with bonfires and by disguising yourself.
This costuming continues in the United States on Oct. 31 and is the second largest money-making holiday, after Christmas, in America. It is traditionally the day where kids of all ages dress up as their favorite goblin or superhero and knock on neighborhood doors seeking treats or doling out tricks.
Solemn or joyful, this holiday is a special time no matter where in the world you live.