The rise of the Day of the Dead


By Karem Nerio, photos by Sarah Van Meel

Strips of shredded paper decorate the entrance. A few meters ahead, a woman sings a traditional Mexican song called La Llorona. Children with painted faces of Catrinas running everywhere. An altar full of colours, flowers, pictures and pan de muerto (a bread with forms of skeletons on top) lie at the bottom of the stairs. This is a piece of Mexico inside the Moesgaard Museum in Aarhus.

On Saturday November 3rd, in the lobby of the museum, families, mostly of Danish origin, went to meet and learn about the Day of the Dead, a traditional fiesta. This is the second year that this event is held. This edition lasted for five days at the Moesgaard Museum in collaboration with the Raíces group, an association of Spanish-speaking representatives in Aarhus.

The altar made by the organization Raices was dedicated to Children’s Songwriters from Latin America and Denmark (photo: Sarah Van Meel)

The President of the Raíces Association and Mexican, Vanesa Sánchez (while painting the face of a girl as a Catrina) said that the popularity of this event has grown this year: “The last time, in fact, everyone who came was from Latin America and now we see a lot of Danes”.

The museum’s lobby felt like an authentic Mexican plaza. On the one side, at the tables there were people playing the lottery, and making headbands in the style of surrealist painter Frida Kahlo. On the other side, you could assemble paper skulls with the image of La Catrina (an iconic image) by Guadalupe Posadas.

All this happened while traditional music was being performed by Edith Tamayo, a Mexican singer, who lives in Copenhagen. Tamayo says that the celebration has become more known in countries of Scandinavia, and she attributed this phenomenon to films like Coco and James Bond. “We as musicians have an increased demand for work these days”, she said.

A day to remember our dead with fondness

The Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico on November 2nd. This tradition has its origins in pre-Hispanic cultures, yet, many elements of the Conquest influenced the elements of this tradition. The loved ones who have passed are remembered and honored by setting up an altar at home and/or visiting their grave in the cemetery. It is believed that their spirits return from the other world to visit their relatives. Altars are a way to receive these visitors at home and they are decorated with objects and elements that these individuals loved during their lifetime.  This is also a festival that takes place in the cemeteries, as people in Mexico visit the grave of their deceased and the cemeteries are filled with colour and music. In each region of Mexico this tradition is celebrated differently, but the idea in general is shared, everyone remembers their deceased.  This tradition was inscribed in the year 2008 to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the United Nation Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Learning with the family

The music is intertwined with family conversations where parents talk with their children about the concept of death that this holiday exposes.

“What I have seen these days doing the activities is that the children arrive a little in fear of the skeletons and the dead and then when they see the colors, they see the flowers, the activities then they start to see it in another way,” – Søren Fournais (photo: Sarah Van Meel)

A father, mother and two daughters are sitting at the table where Frida Kahlo style headbands are made. “That you (the Mexicans) take the sorrow and turn it into something joyful. Something you can remember together, we talk a lot about that, something you can remember as a family”, says Marlene, the mother.

She adds that although for the Danish people, death can be considered a taboo, in her home her mother has another experience: “My mother, her oldest siblings are dead and she has a wall with pictures of them. My sister thinks it is odd but I like it because she (her mother) says ‘they are with me every day’”. Her husband, Lars explains: “I think we should be better at embracing death instead of trying to live forever. Basically, what people try to do today”.

From Mexico to the world

The Museum of Moesgaard has within its permanent exhibition entitled “Lives of the Death” a section dedicated to this Mexican festival. Exhibited here are the main elements of this tradition such as the character of the Catrina, food and flowers traditional of this holiday.

Mai Kim Phuong, who works in the Ethnographic Department of the Museum, collaborated with Raíces to organize the event. With her face painted like a Catrina, Mai expresses that the Danes are curious people when it comes to learning from other cultures, so it seemed natural to organize this event.

This is the second time that the Museum celebrates this traditional Mexican holiday (photo: Sarah Van Meel)

“It’s good that no matter what religion or faith you have, the ancestors are family members, and it is important that you remember them with joy and not with sorrow”, she says. The Raíces was founded by Vanesa in April this year. Among its activities are movie nights, storytelling workshops in Spanish, theatre, cooking, networking spaces, and others. The organization aims to keep the culture of Spanish speaking lands alive, share that culture with others and make bridges with the Danish society.

Bringing together the Latino community

This event not only attracted Danish and Mexican families to the celebration but also volunteers and members from within the larger Latino community. Lucila Arrua is from Argentina and she decided to volunteer in this event to see people from Latin America, speak Spanish and learn about this party.

Lucila says that this event has given her a bigger perspective on the celebration but she considers that there are elements that continue to provoke a culture shock. “They (the Mexicans) hope that the dead come to visit that day. For us death, is something very terrible. We would not invite the dead to visit us”.

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