Latin America: The Feast For The Dead

“The daily experience of the peoples of Mesoamerica is that life exists because there is death. Corn, sown in the fields, dies like all the other seeds, to give birth to a new generation of plants. Death is a part of human existence and of the cosmos.”

Unlike Western societies, which greatly fear death and the dead, we, the descendants of the inhabitants of Mesoamerica (Middle America), consider ourselves “sons and daughters of the Corn”. For example, we consider relatives who were physically taken away from us, as still being spiritually among us. We do it with great reverence because they are the most remote part of our extended family and we are the seed that perpetuates their lives.

Therefore, on All Souls’ Day, we wait eagerly on nuestros muertitos (our beloved departed). We prepare delicacies for them, we sing to them and feast for them because they are our roots and the guarantee of our heritage as peoples with a specific history and identity. It can be said that we joyfully share our life with our dead, or rather, they live in us because they gave their lives for us.

The daily experience of the peoples of Mesoamerica is that life exists because there is death. Corn, sown in the fields, dies like all the other seeds to give birth to a new generation of plants. In our myths, today’s humans are made from the bones of our forefathers and, in turn, we will sow our lives for the future generations.

Time exists because the sun, God’s foremost symbol, sets every evening so that a new sun may rise the next day. In this way, we have the weeks, months, years, centuries, and millennia. Thus, death is part of human existence and of the cosmos, and we must not be afraid of it. It will come at the set moment to crown our life’s journey.

Our indigenous ancestors of Mesoamerica were very conscious of the vulnerability of our human existence, because they knew full well how brief the earthly life bestowed on us was. We are like flowers that embellish the fields a few days and then wither the next. The important thing, however, is that they fulfil the reason for their existence. The same happens to us. Rather than the number of years we live, it is how we live our years that matters – being able to transcend time to fully join the great Giver of Life, Ipalnemohuani. That’s why ancient people believed that “we were born only to wait for the moment of our death”, because by dying, we complete the cycle of our existence and we enter life in its plenitude.

That is the sense of the term petatearse which, at present, only means to die but earlier it referred to the ritual of wrapping the dead in a mat and cremating them, so they could depart with the Sun, the perennial fire of life.

The current devotion to souls in purgatory, with images of souls in flames, reminds the simple people more of the petatearse ritual than the purification needed to enter heaven.

We can say that as descendants of the first settlers of this continent now called “America”, both indigenous and mestizos, we have inherited the same life-sense and the same practices regarding death and ancestors. It is in this way that we conduct our lives in our changing societies and within the Christian Churches from which we have taken our way of being and acting.

That’s why, on All Souls’ Day, in all the cemeteries of Mexico and Central America, as well as in the Andes, Amazon, Guarani, and Mapuche areas of South America, we continue feasting to honour, as God orders, those who preceded us in these lands.

– López Hernández

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