Dying Matters: The Day of the Dead Festival

An image of a typical Day of the Dead altar - it is colourful and made of card, and adorned with skulls.
Day of the Dead altar


World Cultures Curator Antonia Lovelace explores newly gifted Mexican Day of the Dead Festival items for the collection!

In October 2016, during preparations for the Dying Matters display at Leeds City Museum, Lourdes Parra Lazcano -a Mexican PhD student at the University of Leeds -offered to bring back Day of the Dead items from Mexico City for the collection.

In Mexico, families welcome back their dead in the joyful Day of the Dead celebrations on the 1st and 2nd of November.  Special altars are built at home, and people also visit cemeteries with food and candles. The model altar of printed cardboard shows the range of items offered to the dead. Lourdes’ gift also included orange paper carnations, a selection of coloured festival paper-cuts, a special sugar cake, a toy Catrina figure (a famous rich and satirical lady skeleton), a sugar coffin with a pop-up skeleton head, and a sugar skull.

The first sugar skull met with an accident on the flight back to Leeds, however, when a passenger sat on the bag it was in, and it broke into many pieces.

Lourdes holds some of the objects she's brought back from Mexico for the collection.
Lourdes Parra Lazcano

In her youth, Lourdes loved making the altars for the Day of the Dead at home. There’s lots of mixing and matching of symbolism in Mexican Catholicism: for example, crosses for the homemade altars are made out of flowers. In some cases, the altar can be a bit of a class issue. Middle and Upper class Mexicans are now getting more into USA Halloween traditions, and you can see lots of these Halloween decorations outside most doors in the well-off apartment blocks.  Many Halloween things can be bought more easily in the supermarkets.  Supermarket stock might include a Catrina head on its own, but mostly the more commercial westernised plastic skeletons, ghosts and plastic pumpkins are available.


A while ago, the special bread for the altar was handmade in your own kitchen or sold by local bakers during the festival. Now, you can buy the bread in the supermarket. Lourdes gave us a candle that resembles this special bread. The bread recipe has been changed and standardised, and you can now find this bread before and beyond the Day of Dead celebration (not only during those special days).  There is a danger of most things being imported from China, and not made in Mexico at all!

Some people do still visit the cemeteries and make the altars at home, especially lower class families and those in the smaller, more rural communities. The altar food is not usually eaten, it is just for the spirits who come to visit at night.

It is the government that prompted the new tradition of the Day of the Dead street procession, with close links to the James Bond film Spectre, as discussed in this Guardian article.

At the University of Leeds, the Mexican Students Society make their own annual Day of the Dead celebrations.  Below is a group photo from Lourdes taken at the University in 2015.

leeds-mexican-students-society
The Leeds University Union Mexican Students Society

The positive respect for death, and the family ancestors, that the Day of the Dead festival encapsulates is of huge interest around the world and we are really pleased that Lourdes has helped us represent this tradition in the Dying Matters exhibition in the Leeds Story Gallery at Leeds City Museum.

By Antonia Lovelace, World Cultures Curator.

Ellie Harrison, a Leeds artist creating the ‘Grief Series’ – a seven part arts project associated with the Dying Matters campaign – has been successful in applying for funding to make her own trip to Mexico City this coming November.  Leeds Museums and Galleries is hoping that the collections will also benefit from this project, and Lourdes will be able to help Ellie Harrison too.  Click here for more information.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Thank you. It seems like mainstream America is just mining this festival for sexy Halloween costumes. So, it’s good to see some context.

    Like

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