Here in America and in most of Canada, we have funeral traditions that have stood the test of time for decades, even centuries.
But our traditions are vastly different from those in other countries and cultures.
This article takes a look at funeral traditions in Mexico and is part of a series that highlights how different cultures care for their dead.
Although Mexico has allowed freedom of religion since the mid-19th century, more than 82% of its population practiced Catholicism as of 2010. This is largely due to the Spanish conquest and colonial era, as Spain is the birthplace of Roman Catholicism.
Many of Spain’s values (including the Spanish language and Roman Catholicism) remain a large part of Mexican culture long after Mexico claimed its independence from Spain in 1821.
Because so many Mexicans are part of the Roman Catholic faith, the church has a huge influence on funeral traditions. In the Catholic faith, cremations aren’t typically encouraged, and scattering ashes or keeping them in an urn is against the faith — if cremation is chosen, the ashes must be buried.
More Time with the Dead
When someone dies in Mexico, it’s uncommon for the family to immediately have them taken to a funeral home or church. Instead, most families will spend up to 48 hours with the deceased in their home, with a simple sheet draped over them or a simple coffin for them to lay in.
During this time, family and friends visit the home and enjoy food and drink together, hold prayer vigils, and celebrate the dead. Many people bring gifts of food or money to the immediate family.
Belongings of the Deceased
Individuals are typically buried with more belongings than those in America or Canada. Clothing and favorite possessions are placed in the coffin with them, as it is believed they will continue to use these things in the afterlife.
Velorio is the Spanish word for wake, and it’s pretty similar to an open casket viewing in America or Canada. The only real difference is that in some instances, the deceased is in a glass coffin or covered in a simple, translucent shroud rather than an open casket.
During a velorio, most families will place a candle (vela, in Spanish — which is why this ceremony is called a velorio) at each corner of the coffin. After the velorio, any remaining stubs of these candles are saved, as they are believed to bring good luck.
For Mexican Catholics, an important part of the mourning process are novenas. Novenas are prayers, recitations, and/or masses that close family members perform for nine days after their dead have been laid to rest.
Novenas are meant to provide comfort for those who are grieving, and in some cases protection for the deceased in the afterlife.
Day of the Dead
One of the most well-known traditions that Mexico has in regards to its dead is the Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos. Though it’s called Day of the Dead, the holiday actually begins on October 31st and concludes on November 2nd.
During this time, it is believed that the souls of the deceased return to their families to be with them again. The holiday is meant to celebrate this return.
On October 31st, the children in Mexico make an altar for the spirits of dead children who come back for a visit. The same happens on November 1st, except for adult spirits. And on November 2nd, families go to the cemeteries to decorate the graves of their relatives.
Throughout the holiday, loved ones go to great lengths to ensure that the souls of their loved ones feel welcome upon their return. Altars are set up in homes and throughout the community with ofrendas, or offerings, of all of the deceased’s favorite foods and drinks, new toys for the children, alcohol for the adults, marigolds, candles, and more.
In addition to these offerings, families lay out pillows and blankets for their dead loved ones to rest from their long journey.
This holiday is yet another reflection of the Catholic Church’s influence on Mexican funeral traditions, as it’s related to the Roman Catholic holiday All Saint’s Day as well as All Soul’s Day.