|19th century Mexican illustrator Jose Posada created la Catrina, an image that mocked the excess of high society ladies of fashion. To this day, La Catrina-style art is very popular.|
It is often said that the people of Mexico have a special relationship with death. Much of the Western world prefers to ignore the inevitable. Relatives are regarded as truly gone from this earth, images like skulls or cemeteries are seen with either morbid glances or very clinical, clean scrutiny. There isn't nearly the soul or celebration in death that the Mexicans have that is, quite frankly, beautiful. Many cultures have veneration of the dead holiday or tradition. Native American tribes had spring rituals that evolved (thanks to the colonizing French who introduced All Saint's Day) into modern Ghost Suppers (myself and Aaron over at Steampunk Cookery are planning to host one as we speak) to which you would invite dead relatives by hanging wreaths on their graves. In Vietnam the anniversaries of loved ones' deaths are celebrated with feasts and the burning of so-called "hell notes", paper money intended as gifts to the dead person.
But Dia de Los Muertos tops them all in popularity and liveliness. It's captured the imagination of people outside of Mexico and venerates the dead, but with a joyous twist for the living. Traditions include cleaning and decorating relatives' gravesites, eating pan de muerto (spindly loaves of sweetened bread that look like cracked bones), and designating offering altars in the home called ofrenda. These colorful tables are adorned with flowers, paper decorations, photographs of the deceased, food (and booze), items the deceased enjoyed, and perhaps the most iconic image of Dia de Los Muertos: the calavera, or sugar skull. Note that the dead cannot actually eat the food, they simply indulge in the aroma, sight, and memory attached to it.