According to poet Octavio Paz in his essay, The Labyrinth of Solitude, “the Mexican is intimately familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, and celebrates it.” Paz believed that a civilization that denied death ended denying life itself. Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo felt as his compatriot and friend Octavio Paz did about recognizing death’s presence in life. Could it be that Tamayo was thumbing his nose and mocking it in his painting The Scoffer (91.155)?
Oaxaca, Rufino Tamayo’s birthplace, stands out for its rich tradition of celebrating the Day of the Dead the first two days of November. Today, tourists from all over come for bright festivities that feature live music, processions, and huge figures of sand. The living reunite with deceased relatives at the cemetery, bringing with them offerings of colorfully decorated skulls and skeletons molded in sugar, cut out of paper, modeled in clay, and illustrated in ink and paint. Poems and verses are dedicated to the deceased. And the living never forget the essential ingredient for a sentimental, appealing, and joyful celebration: the loved one’s favorite foods. All this, along with the pungent scent of the marigold (cempasútshil) and the attraction of colorful cockscomb (cresta de gallo) flowers placed on the graves, lure the dead to return for a visit to the living each year.
Based on the traditions of the ancient Mixtec peoples of the Oaxaca and other nearby regions, archeologist Eduardo Merlo told of the belief that the deceased did not really die until reaching the other side of the Chignahuapán river. The dead person had to cross this wide and fast-flowing river to get to the limits between life and death. If the person did not make it across, the awaiting fate was nothingness. Among the items placed in the grave, new clothes and offerings of clay, jade or wood were included for the deceased to begin this long journey of nine arduous trials. Most importantly, the person had a dog to guide the way across the river and reach the final resting place of Mictlán with the offerings for its ruler Mictlantecuatl. This clarifies why sculptures such as Mia’s Dog (99.57.3) were found in graves.
Contemporary Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico and around the world are rooted in the traditions and rituals honoring the dead in Mesoamerica 3,000 years ago. In their cyclical concept of the universe, death was seen as integral and ever-present in life. This concept is represented in House Group (47.2.37). Since no evidence existed of the ancient Nayarit living in two-story houses, many scholars concluded that the sculpture expressed a belief that life and death existed in close proximity by showing the living taking part in their daily activities, just as the dead were doing on the lower level. This sculpture had been placed in an ancient grave along with other offerings including food and drink to keep the living and the dead closely connected.
Several years ago, I read a verse placed on an ofrenda (an altar of offerings) that best reveals this warm and intimate connection between life and death:
“I’ll take you in my arms and you’ll feel my caresses.
We’ll dance your whole life through until the day that I kiss you.”
From my translation of:
“En mis manos te tomaré y sabrás de mis caricias.
Bailaremos toda la vida hasta que te bese ese día.”
Article contributed by Maria Eggemeyer