Celebrating the Five Senses during Mexico’s Day of the Dead

The Day of the Dead in Mexico is a sensory experience that encompasses the essence of the country’s rich cultural heritage.

The air is filled with the fragrant aroma of cempasuchil flowers and the lingering scent of copal incense, creating an atmosphere that is both enchanting and captivating.

This celebration tantalizes the taste buds with its sweet flavors, offering a culinary experience that is unique to this occasion.

However, the Day of the Dead is not only a feast for the senses, but it is also a visual spectacle. Vibrant colors, photographs, and flickering candles adorn the altars meticulously crafted by skilled artisans, paying homage to their ancestors.

It is a celebration that transcends the physical realm and taps into the intangible realm of tradition, passed down from pre-Hispanic cultures.

Even for those who may be visually impaired, like Gerardo Ramírez, this celebration holds a profound significance.

As he eloquently states, it is a way to honor and connect with the past, allowing us to pay our respects to those who came before us and to celebrate the enduring spirit of our ancestors.

Throughout history, the concept of the underworld has been a common theme in numerous cultures and religions. It is the realm of the dead, a place where souls are believed to go after death.

In many traditions, it is believed that the dead require guidance to find their way out of the underworld and into the afterlife.

In Mexico, two distinct smells are said to provide this guidance: cempasúchil and copal. Cempasúchil, a beautiful marigold with twenty petals, is a symbol of death and rebirth.

It is used to create intricate altars during the Day of the Dead celebrations, where it is believed to attract the souls of the departed.

Copal, a tree resin, is burned at these altars to create a fragrant smoke that is said to purify the air and guide the souls towards the light.

Together, these two scents create a powerful sensory experience that is deeply ingrained in Mexican culture and spirituality.

The smell of cempasúchil and copal is not just a pleasant aroma, but a symbol of hope and guidance for those who have passed on.

Verenice Arenazas, a young woman who made the bold decision to leave her HR job and embrace her family’s traditional flower field, describes the native species of cempasúchil as possessing an incredibly strong aroma that is almost audible.

According to her, the moment you come into contact with it, the flower seems to proclaim its presence, demanding to be noticed.

This year, Arenazas’ family managed to cultivate an impressive 17,000 cempasúchil plants in Xochimilco, a renowned canal-crossed district in Mexico City.

The family’s cultivation includes two distinct types of cempasúchil: one obtained by carefully selecting seeds from the most fragrant flowers, and the other consisting of genetically modified variants.

With an infectious smile, Arenazas proudly declares that both types are nearly sold out, indicating the immense popularity of these remarkable flowers.

Arenazas eloquently expresses that the aroma of the flowers embodies the essence of hardworking farmers like herself, who dedicate their tireless efforts to caring for these delicate blooms.

To her, the scent also carries a profound sense of “Mexican pride,” representing the rich cultural heritage and deep-rooted traditions associated with the cultivation of these flowers.

Shifting gears, when we delve into the realm of traditional altars commemorating the departed, food assumes a symbolic role representing Mother Earth.

However, the origins of even the sweetest bread, infused with the delicate essence of orange blossom, have a rather macabre history.

Researchers at the Mexican School of Gastronomy suggest that the dough was once prepared by blending honey with human blood, serving as an offering to the gods.

Alternatively, some historians propose that Spanish colonizers, who were appalled by the practice of human sacrifices in Mexico, devised a bread that was dipped in sugar and painted red, symbolizing a heart.

Today, in Mexico, there is a special place on altars for the deceased person’s favorite food and drink. This tradition stems from the belief that the dead actually come back and partake in the essence of the offering.

Ramírez, an expert on the subject, explains the communion between the living and the dead through a personal anecdote.

He recalls how his family placed his uncle’s body on the dining table until the coffin arrived, and they all sat down to eat there.

This tradition is deeply ingrained in Mexican culture and is a source of great pleasure for many. The process of preparing an altar is a sensory explosion, with the softness of the flowers, the textures of the handicrafts, and the vibrant colors of the “papel picado,” a type of thin, colored paper cut-out that is essential to the altar.

In some places, “papel picado” is still made using traditional methods, such as hammer and chisel, as demonstrated in Yuriria Torres’ workshop located south of Mexico City.

The creative hands that prepare the altar are an essential part of this tradition, and their work is a testament to the beauty and richness of Mexican culture.

According to Torres, the process of creating a work of art can be likened to sculpting, a statement that reflects his dedication to the traditional methods he employs.

Despite the availability of modern tools such as stencils or laser cutters, Torres remains committed to executing the entire process by hand.

This deliberate choice not only showcases his skill and expertise, but also highlights his unwavering belief in the importance of craftsmanship.

By eschewing the convenience of technological advancements, Torres ensures that each piece he creates is a testament to his meticulous attention to detail and his commitment to preserving the integrity of the art form.

In a world where efficiency and speed often take precedence, Torres stands as a reminder of the value of tradition and the beauty that can be achieved through the patient and meticulous process of sculpting a work of art by hand.

There exists a fascinating connection between Torres’ art and the sheets of amate tree bark that were traditionally used by pre-Hispanic communities as a form of paper.

While some individuals draw parallels between the two, it is important to note that the Indigenous precursor of amate bark paper did not involve any dyeing process.

On the other hand, there are those who argue that the intricate cuttings found in Torres’ art actually originated in China and were subsequently brought to Mexico by the Spaniards.

Regardless of the exact origins, researchers and art enthusiasts alike concur that Torres’ work symbolizes a profound union between life and death.

It is perhaps this symbolic significance that explains the prevalence of scenes featuring skulls or skeletons engaged in lively dances or indulging in meals within his artistic repertoire.

While the tradition of this annual event is deeply rooted in pre-Hispanic cultures, it has evolved over time to incorporate various elements that engage all the senses.

One such element is the enchanting melodies that now resonate over the adorned tombs in many cemeteries across Mexico.

In the past, the Day of the Dead was often characterized by the soft murmurs of prayers offered to honor departed loved ones.

However, in contemporary times, the atmosphere has transformed, and the lively tunes of mariachi music have become an integral part of the festivities.

This evolution reflects the dynamic nature of cultural traditions as they adapt to the changing times.

José García, a 60-year-old shoe shiner from San Antonio Pueblo Nuevo, a township situated 90 miles (140 kilometers) west of Mexico City, shares his observations on this musical aspect of the Day of the Dead.

He mentions that those who possess the means often hire a group of musicians to accompany them to the cemetery.

This act serves as a way to pay homage to their departed loved ones and enjoy the company of music, which holds a special place in their hearts. It is a moment of celebration and connection with the past.

However, José emphasizes that the enjoyment of music during the Day of the Dead is not limited to those with financial resources.

He notes that some people, regardless of their economic standing, bring their own recordings or musical instruments, such as horns, to create an atmosphere of joyful remembrance.

This inclusivity allows everyone, regardless of their background, to participate in the festivities and engage with the tradition in their own unique way.

The presence of music in the Day of the Dead celebration adds another layer of vibrancy and emotional depth to an already rich and multi-sensory experience.

It serves as a bridge between the living and the deceased, as melodies and songs evoke cherished memories and facilitate a sense of connection with ancestors.

The power of music transcends physical limitations, allowing individuals to immerse themselves in the spirit of the occasion, even if one of their senses, like sight, may be impaired.

In conclusion, the Day of the Dead is a celebration that engages all the senses, and music plays a significant role in this commemoration.

The evolution of this tradition has seen the emergence of mariachi music, which now resonates over the decorated tombs in many cemeteries.

Whether through the hiring of musicians or the personal contribution of recordings and instruments, the spirit of the occasion is enhanced by the melodies that fill the air.

It is a testament to the inclusive nature of this celebration that allows individuals from all walks of life to connect with their past and honor their ancestors through the universal language of music.

The celebration of Day of the Dead in Mexico is a grand visual spectacle that is deeply rooted in cultural syncretism.

The primary objective of this celebration is to remember those who have passed away so that their souls do not disappear forever.

Photos of the departed loved ones hold the most important spot on the altar, which is filled with vibrant colors such as the bright orange of the cempasúchil, the black of the underworld, the purple of the Catholic faith, red for warriors, and white for children.

The act of remembrance is not just individual but also collective. Some political altars in the country’s main public university, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, remember the deceased Palestinian and students who were murdered, while elsewhere, remembrance is institutional, such as the offering in the capital’s Zócalo in honor of the revolutionary Pancho Villa on the centenary of his death.

However, beyond the visual spectacle, the most crucial aspect is to connect with the past and go beyond the senses by immersing oneself in the offering.

Ramírez insists that this is not something that can be explained; it is a feeling that is ingrained in one’s DNA from the moment of birth and experiencing the celebration.

The Day of the Dead is a beautiful and meaningful way to remember those who have passed away and to keep their memory alive.

It is a celebration that is deeply rooted in Mexican culture and is a testament to the country’s rich history and traditions.