Tag Archives: Death in Mexican Culture

Mama Sofia

In March, Mama Sofia, my husband’s grandmother, died. She was 97 years old. She was able to recognize and converse right up to the end. She was ill for about a week and stopped eating, insisting she wasn’t hungry anymore.

She had been living in Zamora, Michoacan with her daughter since her husband Tio Felipe died. We didn’t find out that she had passed away until the next day. We gathered the clan and headed out immediately from Moroleon. It was a hot, dusty, uncomfortable 3-hour drive.

When we finally arrived, I was a bit taken back by the house where Mama Sofia had been living. Her house in Cerano was only two rooms, but comfortable. This house was made of cardboard with a corrugated tin roof. I knew that her daughter C. was not so desperately poor that this was the only option available. She had run a successful tortilla business for years. But, when I met her husband, things became a little clearer.

C’s husband received us like a sultan on his bed, hidden in the interior of the house that seemed more like a labyrinth to me. He had the only fan in the house directed at him, never mind the mourners crouched around the rapidly decomposing body of Mama Sofia. His entire contribution to the evening’s events was sipping from his tequila bottle, although to be fair, he did offer everyone a shot in their coffee before retiring.

Things in Michoacan are done a little differently. Beneath the casket, there was a cross made of cal (lime) and two bowls of purple onion in vinegar rather than a dirt cross and sliced squash to draw out the “cancer” (bad humors) from the body. Twenty-four hours after death, there must be a misa (mass) said for the departed soul.

Things in Mexico often take longer than it seems like it should. Therefore, there was a hold-up for the mass scheduling and burial. Instead of taking the body to one of the templos (churches) the priest came to the house. And what a priest!

He was young. I’d say no older than 25 or so. He also was from Cuba and had just been transferred to Zamora. This funeral was his first in the community. Much to my surprise, he transformed from a serious young priest into a scolding fire and brimstone preacher in just minutes. Nothing he said during the course of the evening was in the least bit comforting for the family. He scolded them about not knowing the Lord’s Prayer well enough, about having the body placed in the casket before being blessed, about gossiping in the presence of a dead person, about the lack of confessors, about having no woman to lead the prayers with the rosary, about having a rosary that was blessed by the priest on Viernes Santo (Holy Friday) apparently that’s a no-no, about kids having caps on in the presence of death and on and on.

So since Mama Sofia couldn’t get a mass scheduled at the church at the 24-hour mark, the priest did a full mass right there on the dirt street, in front of the cardboard house that sheltered Mama Sofia’s body. He enlisted an altar boy. C. set up the altar on a folding table and hung a large Christ image from the roof. He enlisted a woman to read some bible passages. He enlisted 2 ladies to pass the collection dishes. And he enlisted me.

Yes, me. Somehow I found myself being blessed by the holy father and transformed through the holy spirit into a Catholic. My son said I had a deer-in-headlights look the entire time. That’s pretty much how I felt. My job was to handle the wafers, dip them into the wine, say “El cuerpo y la sangre de Cristo” and pop them into the open mouths of the recipients. Me. I’m still in shock I think. Somehow, I think this wasn’t quite orthodox.

I managed it though. There were more wafers left at the end, so everybody who took communion, and a few who didn’t (like me) were given a mouthful. Apparently, once the wafers have been blessed it would be a sin to waste them.

The priest had the same idea about the communion wine. After the service, he not only polished off the entire bottle but opened a second one. Then he introduced us to his 9 or 10-year-old son who travels from congregation to congregation with him. Ummm, ok.

While we were sitting around after mass, there was a spectacular bike crash between two of the neighbors behind the boards on buckets pews. While these two guys were arguing over whose fault it was, a man with orange and black pumpkin boxers on and nothing else walked through the drama and back with a container of milk. I swear I didn’t touch the communion wine!

Then, somehow during the prayer session (rezar) the priest handed me the rosary and told me to move forward a bead every time he said Amen. So round and round the rosary went. When I reached the cross thing, I tried to go backward, but I thought that didn’t seem right, so I jumped the cross thing link and continued around. I really think I need to do some more research on funeral protocol just in case I’m pressed into service again.

The burial wasn’t until 12:30 the following day and most of the clan weren’t able to take any more time off from work, so we piled back in the vehicle around 11 pm to head home. We missed the exit ramp off of 15D and added about 40 minutes to our trip. We did arrive finally, to the delight of our hungry animals and collapsed into our beds.

We will miss Mama Sofia. She was an indomitable woman. It was an honor to have known her.


Filed under Death and all its trappings

The Day of the Dead–El Día de los Muertos


Explaining the significance of this festival to someone who has not experienced El Día de Los Muertos is challenging. The facts are there, easy to find in Wikipedia or other “impartial” sources, but until you stand in front of an altar built for someone you know, you won’t understand.

There are actually 2 days in the festival known as El Día de Los Muertos. During these days, it is believed that the door between the living and the dead is opened for a time and the spirits of the dead come to visit those that remain behind.

November 1st is known in the area that we live in as El Día de Los Angelitos (The day of the Little Angels) and is a day to remember children that have died. As these are private, family gatherings, there is little to note except that there is typically a mass held for the deceased child (See Luctuoso) and toys are brought to the crypt or tomb and left. Special prayers are directed to La Virgen, who lost her own child, in this time of remembrance.

zapotec figure death life

A Zapotec figure representing the duality of death and life.

The more public and better-known festival is November 2, El Día de Los Muertos and its traditions have more to do with the indigenous Mexican than any supposed Catholicism influence. The prehispanic goddess Mictecacihuatl was known as the Lady of the Dead. She was honored during harvest rituals with fire and incense, images of the dead, food offerings in ceramic vessels and flowers. From these traditions comes the modern Mexican belief that souls continue to exist after death in an area similar to the Catholic Purgatory but once called Mictlan, a place of silence and rest. There the souls waited, not for reward or punishment, but for this day when they can return home to visit their loved ones.


(La Muerte) Death is still a Lady in México, now personified as La Catrina. Most Mexicans like to think that the popular image of the Catrina is ancient, but the truth is this caricature of vanity was first drawn by cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada about 100 years ago to poke fun at mestizos (mixed-blood) or indigenas (native people) that pretended to be European. Diego Rivera first used the name Catrina and helped popularize her in his mural, Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central.

suenos de una tarde

Regardless of her origin, La Catrina reigns during los días de los muertos.

face paint catrina

Another Catrina-related tradition is the writing of calaveras literarias (death poems) that poke fun at death. In these short, rhyming verses, La Muerte comes and indiscriminately passes by or takes those mentioned by name in the poem.


frida altar

An altar in honor of Frida Kahlo.

In Moroléon, deceased national and local public figures are honored with altars built in El Centro. More often, altars are built in the homes or at the panteón (cemetery).

baker altar

An altar in honor of a recently deceased local baker including pan de muerto.


The altars may include marigolds, salt, favorite foods presented in ceramic dishes, pan de muerto (a luxurious sugar bread only available during these days) tequila, candles, incense and special personal items.

flower petal art

Each item has its own special meaning and reason for inclusion.

marigold cross

Marigolds are called Flor de Muerto (Flower of the Dead) or cempasuchil (Flower of 400 lives). I imagine it came by its name due to the fact that each petal has the potential to become a future marigold plant, hence each blossom can have many future lives. The strong scent of the flower is thought to lead the spirits home. Sometimes paths of petals lead from the cemetery to the home.

traditional alter

A dirt cross is included at times to remind the living that “From dust we are and to dust we will return.” (See La Novena)

copal altar

Copal is the resinous sap of a tree and has been burned as incense since the time of the Aztecs as an offering to the gods. On the Day of the Dead altar, the scent attracts spirits, drawing them home. It is also used to cleanse the area and to ward off evil.

cantiflas altar

An altar in honor of the deceased Mexican comedian Cantiflas.

Colorful tissue paper, papel picado, is cut into intricate designs and strung to flutter over around the altar. Holydays throughout the year are marked with papal picado strung over processional routes, reminiscent of their use during prehispanic rituals.

sugar skulls

Sugar skulls and figures on sale in el Centro.

You may also find calacas and calaveras on the altars. Calacas (skeletons) are carved wooden or ceramic skeletons often presented in joyous or lewd activities. Calaveras, are sugar skulls made with the name of the dead person written in sugar icing on the forehead and eaten by a relative or friend in honor of the dead.

A crypt decorated for El Dia de los Muertos.

A crypt decorated for El Dia de los Muertos.

At the panteón (cemetery), during this two-day period, families usually clean and decorate graves with ofrendas (offerings). In our case, it meant a trip to my mother-in-law’s crypt, bringing marigolds, candles and a bottle of coke, her favorite beverage. There were hundreds of people at the cemetery, some with lonas (tarps) set up and camp chairs, others perched on buckets playing cards. The families stay long into the night beside the tombs of loved ones telling stories and remembering, weeping and laughing. Some even brought mirrors in hopes of getting a glimpse of the soul as it stops by for a visit. For this one night, the dead are not gone but brought back through the memories of those that remain.


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Filed under Death and all its trappings, Mexican Holidays