The 2nd of November is the Dia de Los Muertos or Day of the Dead and is celebrated in Mexico and the Southwest states of the U.S. It is a day where those who have died are welcomed back home to spend a day with loved ones. Usually altars are prepared with photos and things the deceased would like. Some even have picnics in graveyards where the departed are the guests of honour. Family members and even pets are not just fondly remembered but considered still members of the family. It is based on the idea that life is but a dream and when you die you wake up to your real life.
On the Day of the Dead they come to visit and party like nobody's business. I think Dia de Los Muertos is cooler than Halloween for its decorations and music, for its sense of festival and especially for its art. It might seem like all skeletons but they're all funky, partying skeletons. Joyous skeletons!
The best novel to appreciate Day of the Dead is probably Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano. Not a happy tale by any means the story is set on that day in 1938 as a concerned wife comes to Quauhnahuac, Mexico, to reunite with her a husband, a former British Consul lost in sadness and drink. Of course, there are complications with other characters but the backdrop of the festival interweaves its mystery all to a fateful close. It is a classic of English literature and of the human condition. There was a respectable film adaptation that contains an empathic performance by Albert Finney.
A rather different twist to this day is in Ian McDonald's novel known as Necroville in the UK and Terminal Cafe in the US. Technology has made it possible to resurrect the dead but their legal status remains non-living. They have to work off the expense of maintaining their legal dead state and they live in segregated enclaves. In Los Angeles they live in Necroville. But for one night of the year, The Night of the Dead, everyone goes to Necroville, living and dead, to be part of the wildest party of the year. The novel follows five narratives as these five characters wander the streets looking for either loved ones or a sense to one's own existence. In its visually rich and multi-textured world, past and future ideals clash and it asks what place our souls have within it.
But you don't need to read. You can watch Robert Rodriguez's Once Upon a Time in Mexico; frenetic, erratic and messy but plenty of gun-fu which climaxes on The Day of the Dead and all the exotic imagery that it contains. But it brings back to mind something very cool regarding those images of skeletons and flowers and Mexican architecture. I recall most fondly a 1988 computer adventure game by Lucasarts called Grim Fandango. Stylised like Casablanca in The Land of the Dead where everyone is in the form of a Calaca, a Day of the Dead skeleton, must travel to the Ninth Underworld. A great game but best of all was the world it contained; an Aztecan world of 20s Noir intrigue where one might imagine the dead go to live out their lives. I know it's only a game but I have often thought there needs to be a movie, even a computer animated feature, set in this world.
Imagery is what is so very special to me about the Day of the Dead. It's not from my own culture so I'm guessing I don't fully fathom the full meaning of it. But I think there's something magical about it, something that allows colour and love in what could be a dark place. And I feel that most in the art, especially the folk art of this festival. You could kind of live it yourself by making paper machete skeletons and hanging them round the home. Make sugar skulls and give them out as treats. Invite your living friends to party with the dead. Why should they miss out on the fun? I suggest picking up a copy of Day of the Dead Crafts: More Than 24 Projects that Celebrate Da de los Muertos.
Also seek out the art of José Guadalupe Posada, an engraver who during the late 1800s and early 1900s produced many wonderful illustrations depicting Dia de Los Muertos, some macabre but largely engaging and humourous. His influence throughout the twentieth century is hard to measure but clearly there, right up to a direct inspiration for Edward Gorey and Tim Burton. Posada has been rediscovered numerous times including most recently as template for tattoo designs.
I recommend you get to know better this Day of the Dead and also the festival the day before, on the 1st of November, called Dia de los Angelitos when people remember the children that have died. I think there's something special about it, something funky and sublime at the same time and a cultural event the world could do better to appreciate. Even if in the end you hang up your paper skeleton, get your friends to toast your tequila shots (lick-sip-suck) to the altar of Anthony Quinn and then watch the sunset while listening to Los Lobos.