Are Mexicans really unafraid of death?

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

In Mexico, we have this saying that goes “En Mexico nos reimos de la muerte,” which translates as “in Mexico we laugh at death.”

This sentiment is perhaps best summed up by Mexico’s most celebrated 20th-century poet, Octavio Paz, who wrote, “Mexicans frequent death, they make fun, cuddle up with and party with it as one of its favorite toys or unwavering lover.”

A man with his face painted as a skull visits deceased relatives in Hoctun’s cemetery: Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Death imagery in Mexico dates back to prehispanic times as cultures such as the Maya, Mixtec and Zapotec are well known for incorporating skull and death motifs into their ceramics, architecture, and just about every other art form imaginable.

To go with these artistic representations, Prehispanic cultures developed a complex universe around the great mystery of death, full of symbolic portals to the other world, bloodletting, gods, spirits, and even (though much less common than people assume) human sacrifice. 

A human skull carved into stone relief within Chichén Itzá’s great Mesomarican Ballcourt. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

In some places these ancient rituals continue relatively unaltered, as is the case of the community of Pomuch in Campeche, where locals exhume the bodies of their deceased for ritual cleaning and display, beginning three years after death. 

Practices such as those in Pomuch may seem odd to people from outside these communities but are central to their observance of the Day of the Dead. Photo: Juan Canúl

A little less macabre, but still very much in keeping with ancient custom, people across Mexico will leave out offerings for their dearly departed on special altars during Día de Los Muertos or Hanal Pixán, as it is known in Yucatán.

Hanal Pixán altars are adorned with flowers, photos of loved ones who have passed away as well as their favorite foods, and often items like their favorite alcohol and cigarettes. Photos: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

With violent deaths rising in parts of the country beginning in the mid-’90s, there has been a revival of the cult known as “La Santa Muerte,” or holy death. 

With so much inequality in Mexico, death is seen as democratic, in that it comes for the rich and the poor alike. In the end, under it all, we are all just a skull and bones after all. 

The skeletal remains of an embracing couple found in the Chichimeca City of Tenayuca in what today is Mexico State. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

This is all to say that while Mexico is not the only country with its own unique cultural views on the topic of death, it sure seems to have taken this obsession to a whole other level. Heck, it’s so pronounced that Disney-Pixar even made a movie about it. 

Mural in Kanasín Yucatán based on imagery from the film Coco. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The irony with films like Coco, or the establishment of a Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City that traces its origins back to the filming of a James Bond movie, is that these long-held beliefs and attitudes about death are now being reflected back into Mexico through a foreign lens.

Mexico’s Day of the Dead imagery and traditions have become so popular that they are now a tourist attraction. Pictured, one of several Catrinas on display in Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

So back to the title of this post, are Mexicans really unafraid of death? Quotes like Paz’s may be thrown around, sometimes even in jest ⁠— but yes, we Mexicans are afraid of death. This is to the point that we have developed an entire set of complex rituals which enable us to deal with it in much the same way we deal with so many other of our problems.

By poking fun at it. 

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