Death and Dying in Mexico: Embracing, laughing, and celebrating life’s transitions
Ingrid Altamirano is the founder and chairperson of the Mexican Cultural Association in Southern Sweden (Mexikanska Kulturföreningen i Skåne). She has mainly worked within the fields of research, academia and cultural dissemination in Mexico, Japan and Sweden. She is passionate about life, and thinks it is very important to understand the roots of our current social, economic, political and ecological problems to open up the possibilities for a fairer future.
This interview took place on the 21st of February, 2018.
”I think that the relationship Mexicans have to death is very particular. Generally, in Western society, death is a taboo. It is something that you only talk about when it actually happens. That’s what I, at least, perceive in Swedish society. I actually also see that it’s more common to say that a person has ‘gone away’ rather than ‘died.’
In Mexico, the funeral usually will last for one or two days. It’s a big ceremony. Often, you have a ceremony where you have the corpse present, with an open coffin, so you can say goodbye face to face. There are very strong emotions at a funeral. It’s very painful in the moment, but afterwards you feel really cleansed. When someone dies, you go into this bubble of death, and you embrace it. With all your being.”
”There’s an interesting approach to death in Mexico because Mexican culture is a mixture of what we have inherited from pre-hispanic times and colonisation. After colonisation, of course Catholicism became extremely important to the way that we perceive death. But, what we have inherited from pre-hispanic times has never really been extinguished. For Christian people, for Catholics, when a person dies, that’s more or less the end, the end of the cycle. And then you go to heaven, depending on what kind of life you had. But, from the pre-hispanic perspective, death is part of the process of life. It doesn’t necessarily mean that life itself is over. Your ashes fertilise new growth in the next generation.”
”I would say that since Catholicism came to Mexico, a new fear of dying appeared. Mexicans tend to laugh at things they are afraid of. So, we started to laugh more about death. I think it’s a defense mechanism common to many people. But, it’s also something cultural. Mexicans make fun of everything, and they ‘make fun’ of death. And this is a strong element in Day of the Dead. You have a woman, this La Calavera Catrina figure, who is cartoony, and beautiful, and she makes death a little bit less scary. She can be friendly, and she can be sexy, and she can sing songs. You try to dress up death so it’s more friendly, so it can be a bit closer to you. Death is often very far away from us when we are alive. So Mexicans say, ‘let’s make it fun.’ Let’s make it a joke. Because a joke is something we can relate to. Mexicans, they make a tragedy a party.
When I was a child, I was told that death was something beautiful. And we would always have a big party to honour everyone that died. And it’s still my favourite tradition. It’s the holiday that I look forward to the most, every year. Most people look forward to Christmas for example. And Christmas is about the birth of someone. Jesus Christ comes to life. It’s interesting that even though most Mexicans are Christian and Catholic, Day of the Dead is more important than Christmas. It tells you that death is, in a way, more sacred than birth.”
”For the Aztecs, there were four different places your soul could go when you die. The first is Tlalocan. This is the place where souls will go if the death was water related. If you drown or die because of a storm. What defines where you soul goes does not depend on how your life was, but how you die — which is different from most other religions. The next is the paradise of the sun, Tonatiuhi. You went there if you were a warrior of sorts, or died in battle. You also went here if you were a woman who died during delivery. Then, there’s Mictlán. This is the more ‘general’ after-life, where everyone else went. The last is the paradise of milky breast, Chichihua Cuauho. This place was for children who died at an early age, before they had a developed sense of reason. They would go to this paradise with huge breasts, where their souls would just breastfeed all day long. The Mayans thought that you would go to the underworld. You wouldn’t go heaven. You would go back to the soil. Because the Earth is where the origin of life is, not the sky.
I think that the legacy of these cultures has really permeated what Mexicans believe both subconsciously and consciously. Day of the Dead, and the way we relate to death, cannot be described as just of Christian influence. It’s a kind of mysticism, a blend. A magical mix.”
Mexikanska Kulturföreningen i Skåne (MxKfS) is a non-profit organisation dedicated to spreading information about Mexican culture and organising workshops and/or other cultural events where people can have fun, exchange different experiences, points of view, learn better Spanish-Swedish and benefit from Sweden’s cultural diversity.