Mexican Altar of the Dead

Candy-like decorated skulls scattered all over.

Together these pieces of an exhibit at the Cervantes Institute in Krakow make up a grotesque carnival of not-so-sober death.
The only thing lacking is a cemetery with tombstones.

“These are indeed made of sugar,” explained Monica Velarde, who oversees the exhibition. “In Mexico, we have a different approach to death than in other cultures. We simply do not treat it seriously.”

The exhibit was timed to pay homage to the outstanding Mexican artist Frida Kahlo on the 100th anniversary of her death.

Mexicans celebrate the day of the saints by preparing extravagant altars and mocking the somber subject of death, although they remain serious about those who died. They tell stories about the deceased at the festive family event – and even party in the cemetery.

This tradition has its roots in the Aztec culture that dominated Mexico before the Spaniards invaded the land in the 16th Century. The Roman Catholic Church in Mexico started celebrating the Day of Old Souls instead of the Day of All Saints. That was when the idea of purgatory was introduced to the locals.

The Indians were then allowed to pray for their dead and in that way prevent their relatives from going to hell. The natives introduced their traditions into the ceremony, however. Among them was the notion of providing the deceased with food and other earthly trappings.

“If we went back to the days of the Aztecs, we would find the god of death, represented by a skull, ever-present,” Velarde noted.

“In today’s celebrations we use various versions of the symbol,” she said. “There are skulls made of sugar, clay, chocolate. We present them to our friends.”

Part of the Krakow exhibition is a small display of photos that show us what a Mexican funeral celebration is like nowadays.
In 2003 UNESCO declared Mexico’s funeral tradition a non-written World Heritage event.

Altar de Los Muertos en Mexico at Cervantes Institute, ul. Kanonicza 12. Exhibition open until Nov. 15.

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