PRINT November 1988



NOT THAT THERE IS really any way to crack the nut of national character, and not that I insist on trying; but we might say that the mortuary consciousness of a culture is probably a better index of its crucial attitudes to life than the more familiar and cliché-prone revelations of the laughter of its people (the national humor) or the rigmaroles of climatological determinism, or whatever canticles of national formation make it through the clamor of change in an age of speed. So it is, at least, with death in Mexico; and so it is especially on the Day of Death, All Soul’s Day—el Día de los Muertos (November 2).

Death is literally flaunted mast-high in Mexico, written into the privileged system of national emblems and national tokens and imaged in the very instruments of national self-definition—the flag and the anthem—with an insistence not displayed thus by any other major country in the world. Beyond these latter-day emblems, the Mexican celebration of death is more deeply marked by a mosaic of syncretic traditions (mestizaje)—the carnivalism of the Catholic middle ages, which waxed in the Americas even as it waned in Europe; the ritual sacrifices of the Aztecs (death at “the edge of the obsidian,” as they said); and the intricate afterlife-myths of a dozen other pre-Hispanic language groups. From the vast parable of the agrarian base, all these narratives and social practices developed a complexly plaited organicist spiral of life and death, which was manifested in life through the sacrificial donation of human blood (to “guarantee the permanence of the universe”) and is now revealed in death ceremonies by the continual porterage of clothes and foodstuffs to the place of interment.1 This last procedure is carried on most unfailingly by the Terrascans, who ferry food for their dead, and set it on lifelike tables, on a funerary island in Lake Patzquaro.

Today’s ofrendas, altars for the dead, are still loaded with gilded images, clusters of zempazuchitl (the yellow flowers of death), a whole menu of death foods, and other more personal and imponderable memento mori, all blurred and candle-lit for the nighttime vigil with a kind of Polaroid exuberance. The stylized death foods are particularly compelling. They include breads (panes de muertos), pumpkin preserves, sugarcane, haws, aromatic spices (calabaza en tacha), and elaborately labeled and decorated sugar sweets (calaveras de azucar).2 In Guanajuato, in central Mexico, you can buy coconut-filled candy mummies in the local wrought-iron market, which ape the ghastly forms of the mineral-preserved bodies displayed in the macabre mummy museum by the town cemetery. In an extraordinary gesture of packaging and corn-modification, death is represented here as a year-round cellophaned comestible, a tangible bitter-sweet image to be licked and ingested (by the young). Death becomes a lollipop.

At the more Catholic end of the syncretic chain, the whole Christ-centered ritual of the Holy Week Easter ceremony is inclined toward the memory and enactment of death, and disinclined to dwell on the Resurrection. In several parts of Mexico, Good Friday sees in the chase of the demonios or judios, rambunctious polychrome dummies of the slayers of Christ, which tilt amongst the crowds like manic-comic purveyors of death. And at child burials there takes place a strange ecstasy for the swift passage of the blemishless angelito into a place better than life.

Then look back at Diego Rivera’s fresco Day of the Dead—The Offering, 1923–24, in the Secretaria de Educación Pública in Mexico City. It seems like the alter persona of the crowded Groszian imagery with which he castigates the functionaries of capital in the famous mural on the other side of the building. An apparently similar teeming energy, but a completely different figuration: the faces, though no less typical, are not taken over and subsumed by a satirical effort as they are in Capitalist Dinner, 1926; neither are they reduced into allegories. Instead, there is an excess, a surfeit, of signifying material, registering the abandonment of the characters to their celebrated day, and a lack of control, both of the ritual over the event, and of the event over the people of the event. In Rivera’s terms, then, while the system of capital is both monstrous and monotonous, the (folk) ritual is a working-through of the contradictions between the demons of death and the sweetness of life, a necessary enactment of the way life is always becoming-death.

At a time when death is so present and discomforting, my remarks are not to be taken as an injunction to turn to a ritual (a “superstition”) that cannot be taken up by many of us (though it also should not be condemned outside of its context). They are intended, much more modestly, to point to the inadequacy of the way we are conditioned to turn to death. Here, I am willing to follow some of the rather generalized but poignant admonitions of Philippe Ariès against the “denial of mourning” and the “abstraction of death” that have attended the medicalization and technological control of the modern process of dying. Aries describes the emptying out of the sociality of death, through ostracization, sanitization, formal and emotional spareness, silence—a whole litany of compulsive reductions to a minima mortis in which there is no mediation between the individual and the institution, and which is the product of the same machine of inwardness and possessiveness (in “the last will and testament”) that lit the Puritan Enlightenment and engaged the cogs of individualist capitalism.3

The economy and apparatuses of the merchandized stationing of death in the nonsocial, private space of the funeral home have been revealingly described by Jessica Mitford in The American Way of Death.4 Cremation is the most conspicuous activity of this desocialization process. As the key term in the great Protestant funerary industry of the civilized West, it precisely acts out a minimalism of mortality. Ninety minutes of reduction diminishes the body to “a couple of pounds of controllable ash.” It thus offers a reduced ritual object of consolation after the death of a form. The preference in Mexico, by contrast, is for a lively performance of death, which theatrically denies the absence it purportedly celebrates.

There has been a lot of talk about the need for dignity in death. Whatever that can be will only be engendered through death’s becoming-social. We cannot necessarily learn from the details and the specific references of the Mexican way of death, but we can learn from the model of its sociality, from the desecration of death as an antisocial taboo, from the need to take death on communally and not to abandon those that it touches to the connotations of death’s white cube. Privatized death is one of the highest failures of an always gullible system.

John Welchman, an art historian and critic, teaches at the University of California, San Diego. His column appears monthly in Artforum.



1. See Patricia Fernandez Kelly, “Death in Mexican Folk Culture,” in David E. Stannard, ed., Death in America, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1973, p. 93 ff., for a discussion of these rituals and their images.
2. Kelly lists these and other foods, and details their ritual functions.
3. Philippe Ariès, “The Reversal of Death: Changes in Attitudes toward Death in Western Societies,” in ibid.
4. Jessica Millord, The American Way of Death, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963.