Diversity Matters: Dia de los Muertos

October 30, 2017  //  FOUND IN: Updates & Resources,

This time of year isn’t all just candy and costumes.

From Tuesday until Thursday, many patients, faculty, staff and students across the organization will be celebrating the festival of Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

In order for you to better understand the purpose of this holiday, as well as provide support for patients, families and colleagues who are celebrating it, here are some things to keep in mind about the holiday.

What is Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead?

Dia de los Muertos is traditionally revered as a festival that honors the deceased through upbeat celebrations and festive gatherings around food and drink.

The holiday was originally brought to Latin America by Spanish conquistadores and is often celebrated on All Saints Day and/or All Souls Day, which are both recognized holidays on the traditional Catholic calendar.

While many associate the Day of the Dead with all of Latin America, it is most closely tied to Mexico, as it originated there.

The foundation of Dia de los Muertos is based on the idea that the deceased would be insulted if their family members acknowledged their passing with sadness and tears. The holiday recognizes that death is a natural part of life — not to be mourned, but rather celebrated.

“Experiencing Dia de los Muertos firsthand in Mexico helped me appreciate that feeling a little more than I had previously,” said Anicia Mirchandani, a U-M medical student and member of the Latin American Native American Medical Association. Mirchandani spent a year teaching in a health care setting in Mexico as a Fulbright scholar.

“It helped me understand that the emphasis is on the ‘celebration of life’ of loved ones who had passed away — and this is a very different idea than in America.”

The most recognizable symbol of Dia de los Muertos is often calaveras and calacas, which are skulls and skeletons, respectively, portrayed as celebratory characters enjoying life. That’s because celebrants believe that their deceased loved ones are actively participating in the festivities with them, awakened from their slumbers to share in the celebrations.

When does Dia de los Muertos occur?

Dia de los Muertos begins on Tuesday, Oct. 31 and ends on Thursday, Nov. 2. While rituals foreshadowing this holiday date back almost 3,000 years, it historically fell during the ninth month of the Aztecan calendar, which is now August.

The three-day festival includes All Hallows Eve on Oct. 31, Dia de los Inocentes, or the Day of the Innocents, on Nov. 1 and Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, on Nov. 2.

Pan de muertos is traditionally eaten during the festivities.

While Dia de los Inocentes traditionally recognizes infants and/or children that have prematurely passed away, Dia de los Muertos primarily commemorates deceased adults.

During all three days of this holiday, families get together to eat, drink and share memories about their loved ones from dusk until dawn.

In what ways will Dia de los Muertos affect patients and colleagues?

While the festival does not include any dietary restrictions, many individuals who celebrate like to enjoy tasty foods like pan de muertos, a sweet bread that is shaped like bones and customarily eaten in conjunction with their deceased relatives’ favorite foods. Traditionally, it is widely encouraged to eat these decadent treats at the altars of their loved ones, all the while sharing the experience with them.

In addition, individuals who partake in these celebrations may be a bit more sensitive about their deceased loved ones than at other times throughout the calendar year. Therefore, it is best to be respectful of their needs and to always ask them how you may fully — and effectively — support them while recognizing the holiday.