photo: Corbis

When I think of a quintessential Mexican funeral, the one I remember most was for a man I had never met. He was a distant relative and had died after he accidentally shot himself while he was with his horse up in the mountains of Jalcocotan, Mexico. Friends and family gathered at Parroquia de la Inmaculada Concepción de Maria for the service. Then a procession commenced from the church to the cemetery that sits atop the mountains overlooking the small town. It’s quite a distance on foot, and yet the young and elderly proceeded without faltering. The horse galloped alongside his owner's casket with his head hanging low. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen an animal on the verge of tears. The town seemed to have shut down in honor of the funeral, with everyone walking along main street up to the cemetery grounds. In Jalcocotan, this happens every time someone dies.

The outpouring of emotional cries is another element of Mexican funerals I had never witnessed before. Typically, the funerals I’ve attended in the United States, both Latino and non-Latino, are quiet and somber. I assume the silence is out of respect. But in Mexico, the jubilant sound of a mariachi is common at a funeral service and/or burial, which sometimes makes the rush of sadness even more profound. There are also numerous days and nights of mourning, so the body isn’t buried right away as it is in other cultures.

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Countless online forums and articles aim at helping the general public cope with “the fear of death.” There’s even a mayor of a small town in Italy who prohibits his citizens from getting sick and dying because the population is dwindling. Yet, Mexican culture embraces death and all that comes with it.

The notion of celebrating death goes much deeper than Día de los Muertos. Although that holiday is the most recognizable way for non-Mexicans to understand how we view and celebrate death as an important part of being alive. The Mexican customs surrounding death date back to the era of Mayans and Aztecs, and now, incorporates Catholic practices, too. 

Fans of Mexican singer Jenni Rivera pay her homage after she died in a plane crash.

photo: Corbis

For example, the Mayans believed that certain deaths were more noble than others. They also had a ritual of putting maize in the mouths of the dead because maize symbolized rebirth. The Mayans also felt it was crucial that the dead find their way to the “other world.”

Human sacrifice was an important component of Aztec life. According to writer Hilary Dockray: “They believed that those who were sacrificed provided crucial nourishment to many of their deities who would in turn keep nature and the cosmos in balance.”

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During the Spanish Conquest, Mexicans began adapting the Catholic religion. Stanley Brandes writes that All Saints' and All Souls' Days began to “assume the flavor of the contemporary event” that is recognizable today back in the 1740s, including the commercial production and sale of whimsical figurines made of the sugar paste in Mexico. He writes that these “holy days” have their roots in Catholic masses that originated in the 11th century to honor all the saints and souls that were in purgatory.

Charles Ramírez-Berg, Professor in Media Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, brought to my attention Lourdes Portillo’s film La Ofrenda/The Days of the Dead (1989), in which the director captures how Mexicans honor the deceased.

“What she shows is the belief that death is not the end of life, but more a transition to another stage of it, a spiritual one,” Ramírez-Berg says. “In death, the living person slips from life into the spirit world."

Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday celebrated on October 31 through Nov. 2, has become widely accepted around the country and heavily incorporated into our American celebration of Halloween. However, in Mexico, honoring the dead is a year-round occupation. Typically, one day out of the week, loved ones will visit burial sites, clean the surrounding area and tombstone, and leave the departed’s favorite foods and/or drinks. The Day of the Dead recognizes such rituals but in a more exaggerated way.

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“This community ‘embraces’ — I would rather say that the community honors rather than embraces — the idea of death and/or dying because it is a fact of life and it is part of the psyche, the cosmology by which people live their lives,” says Norma E. Cantú, Latino Studies Professor at University of Missouri - Kansas City.

Another way Mexicans incorporate the dead on a daily basis is by always talking about the deceased as if they’re literally in the room. I’ve heard plenty of casual conversations around the kitchen table in which someone who is dead is talked about in the present tense. This confused me at first, but one time I whispered to my dad “didn’t he die?” to which he said “yes.” It was then that I realized just because you’re dead doesn’t mean you’re not there.

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“I think the Mexican response [of celebrating the dead] is remarkable, because it is not just a reminder of a loved one who has passed away, but an honoring and a maintaining of a relationship with them,” says Ramírez-Berg. “The idea of death is not morbid or macabre, it seems to me, but vibrant and alive,” Ramírez-Berg says. “The living honor the dead but treat them as if they were still present in spirit form. It’s an interesting counterpoint to Western and Anglo American views of death — which is death is the end. The Mexican concept seems to me to be much more positive and not at all scary — the dead return on the Day of the Dead and we spend some time with them and they with us. The relationship is not over—it continues, maintained, and develops.”

I no longer see dying as unknown or finite end. Death is just another element to life, and one in which the community takes part in. Celebrating the dead is just the same as celebrating a birthday, perhaps even more heartfelt.