The Day of the Dead documentary highlights how Mexicans connect with the dead during the Day of the Dead ceremony. The documentary provides detailed accounts of the ceremony by highlighting how the traditional-adherent Purepecha community, which is located in the “Island of The Souls” conducts the ceremony. Alan Aldridge describes a cult as a religious devotion towards a particular object or figure1.
The ceremony is a cult constituting of the catholic denomination’s religious beliefs and the pre-Hispanic rites. The Purepechas and other Mexicans religiously devote themselves to the dead during the ceremony.
The ceremony derives the belief in life after death and the idea that the dead are invisible companions from the catholic denomination. Besides, repetitive pre-Hispanic rites from the previous generations inform the ceremony.
A General Overview of the Documentary’s Message
The basic message of the ceremony is that the dead never die. They appear during the ceremony to spend time with the Mexican people. As a way of paying homage to the dead, the living persons believe that they must offer gifts. They also believe that the dead can communicate amongst themselves and share their expectations.
Therefore, the living persons imagine what the dead would prefer in terms of food, beverages and decorations. They gather the items and offer them to the dead by placing them on their tombs. In simple terms, the ceremony offers a means through which the living persons communicate with the dead.
As Alan Aldridge highlights, the highly intuitive nature of religion shows that religion must appeal to three aspects, which include people’s needs, emotions and human reason2. However, as discussed in this paper, the theoretical aspect of the ceremony shows that the ceremony fails to appeal to human reason.
This raises concerns regarding the ceremony as a practical religious function. Nevertheless, the assessment of social-sociological mode of expression shows that the ceremony focuses on appealing to emotions and needs, such as comfort and belonging. This explains why the Purepecha and other Mexicans adhere to a ceremony that is impractical according to normal religious standards.
The Theoretical Aspects of the Day of the Dead Ceremony
As Hent de Vries notes, the theoretical aspects of religion constitute the invisible world and the belief in ultimate reality or a supreme being3. In any religion, these two constituents should have a strong basis to make the religion believable and trustworthy. The Day of the Dead depicts an invisible world with an ultimate reality, which is life after death.
Death is not a total separation or an absolute end because the dead are the invisible souls. However, does the claim have an ultimate basis? Essentially, the basis of this claim is tradition. As Amador highlights in the documentary, his family conducts the ceremony as informed by tradition. The ceremony is a custom that their grandparents and great-grandparents practiced.
This makes it apparent that there is no basis of the life after death claim. How do the dead become invisible and where do they go? How do people know the dead are alive and invisible? There are no clear explanations to these questions, a clear indication that the source fails to offer a spiritual explanation of how the dead become living-invisible souls.
In simple terms, the ceremony fails to appeal to the human reason because many of its theoretical aspects are inconclusive. There is no ultimate reality and this makes it difficult to acknowledge that the ceremony has a reasonable spiritual basis.
The Practical Aspects of the Day of the Dead Ceremony
In religion, practical aspects include practices, behavior and worship. The Purepecha and other Mexicans perceive the Day of the Dead ceremony as an important function. Therefore, it is crucial that they devote to the ceremony to make it a success. Men hunt ducks and catch fish while women go to the market and cook for the dead.
The Mexicans’ remarkable devotion towards the ceremony is marked by using copal incense, buying what their dead relatives and friends liked and creating sugar figurines on which the names of the dead are written. This also goes for visiting the cemeteries, spending the night there to welcome the dead and chanting religiously during the ceremony.
They also light the candles, which they associate with divinity. Considering that these are Mexicans’ traditions, the strong devotion to the ceremony’s practices is expected. Nonetheless, is this what they are supposed to do? Markedly, as discussed in the theoretical section, the ceremony fails to appeal to the human reason. There is no explanation of how the dead become the living soul.
This means that the Mexicans have no sound religious convictions as to why they should devote to the ceremony and its practices. It is equivalent to devoting themselves to what they do not comprehend or know about. This seems unreasonable; they are blindly following traditions that have no basis just because their parents and previous generations followed them.
In this regard, they should not devote to the practices because it is impractical. However, why do they still devote to the ceremony even though it is apparent that it is impractical?
The Social/Sociological Aspects of the Day of the Dead Ceremony
As a form of a social institution, religion focuses on implementing and preserving its practices and teachings through its interaction with the larger society. In the process, it ensures that it appeals to emotions and needs4. The Day of the Dead ceremony serves this function best and this explains why people devote to the ceremony in spite of its impractical nature.
The ceremony strengthens family bonds as family members collaborate to make the ceremony a success. As seen in the documentary, Amador’s wife, Estela, let the boys help her to prepare the ducks. In addition, while coming back from the market to purchase goods for the ceremony, Amador goes to help Estela to carry the goods. More so, they set up the offerings together as a family.
The ceremony also brings comfort to the Mexicans who have lost their loved ones by providing them with a sense of connection. Fundamentally, the ceremony makes people believe that their loved ones never died and are present at the ceremony with them. This creates the illusion that the dead never left them. The ceremony also nurtures a sense of belonging at the community level.
To welcome the dead to the cemetery, people collectively build an arch comprising of flowers. Besides, collective duties are assigned to the community members. For instance, children become the ministers of the ceremony.
They climb the bell tower to ring the bells during the Wake to welcome the dead. More so, after the souls of the dead depart, people collect the bread and share it amongst themselves. This brings in a sense of happiness and identity. It shows that everyone belongs to a hardworking community.
Clearly, the Day of the Dead of the dead raises concerns, in terms of whether it is a practical and trustworthy religious ceremony or not. The theoretical aspects of the ceremony show that it does not appeal to human reason. The ceremony fails to prove the ultimate reality of its spirituality or the invisibility of the dead. This makes it difficult to get to the ultimate destiny or comprehend the basis of the ceremony.
Even though people show relenting devotion to the ceremony’s practices and worship, the inconclusiveness of the ceremony show that people should not devote to the ceremony. They do not understand the basis or the ultimate reality of the ceremony to warrant their unrelenting devotion.
Nevertheless, with the strong appeal to people’s needs and emotions, it is clear why the Mexicans devote to the ceremony deemed impractical by religious standards. The ceremony brings to them a sense of comfort for losing their loved ones. This also goes for nurturing a sense of belonging, happiness and identity as a hardworking community.
Aldridge, Alan. Religion in the Contemporary World. Malden: Polity Press, 2007.
Vries, Hent de. Religion: Beyond a Concept. Bronx. Fordham Univ Press, 2008.
1 Alan Aldridge, Religion in the Contemporary World (Malden: Polity Press, 2007) 12-80.
2 Alan Aldridge, Religion in the Contemporary World (Malden: Polity Press, 2007) 80-120.
3 Hent de Vries, Religion: Beyond a Concept, and (Bronx. Fordham Univ Press, 2008), 256-393.
4 Hent de Vries, Religion: Beyond a Concept, (Bronx. Fordham Univ Press, 2008), 256-300.