Laughing Skulls and Dancing Skeletons: What’s with All that Weird Day of the Dead Imagery Anyway?

Grinning skeletons wave to the crowds from balconies high above the street. Others, life-sized or even larger, are positioned at the entrances to stores, hotels and other public buildings. Made of nearly every material imaginable—wood, clay, metal, papier-mâché—they bear no trace of malice as they cheerily greet visitors. Scenes such as this are common during Day of the Dead festivities, and the preponderance of death images is one reason that those not familiar with the celebration may view it as morbid or macabre. But the holiday has inspired a rich folk art tradition; the skulls and skeletons are intended to be humorous and are created in recognition of the fragility of life.

The Day of the Dead is a time when families in Mexico and other Latin American countries honor and remember loved ones who have died. The celebration and the imagery associated with it have roots in pre-Hispanic cultures. Remembrances of the dead formed an important part of ancient harvest festivals, and images representing death are found in pottery and carvings at archeological sites ranging from southern Mexico to the Gulf Coast, and central Mexico. In the post classic period (900-1520 CE), during the era of the Aztecs, death imagery was especially prevalent.

The Christian tenet of eternal life after death was introduced with the arrival of the Spanish in 1519, and the ancient observation of the cycles of nature became intermingled in the celebration of the Day of the Dead, which combines the Catholic traditions of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (November 1st and 2nd, respectively) with the pre-Hispanic concepts of death.

More recently, the work of Mexican illustrator José Guadalupe Posada (1852–1913) has come to be closely associated with the Day of the Dead, and serves as a bridge between the pre-Hispanic imagery and its expression in contemporary folk art. A political cartoonist and printmaker, Posada frequently depicted politicians and other important figures as skeletons in his work. His intention was to poke fun at the wealthy and to remind people that, in death, all souls are equal.

Of the many figures and symbols associated with the Days of the Dead, Posada’s image of “Catrina,” an elegant and well-dressed female skeleton, is probably the most popular and well-known. Originally meant to satirize the life of the upper classes during the reign of Porfirio Diaz, Catrina can be seen all over Mexico and has served as inspiration for many artists—both past and present—who recreate the popular icon in virtually every medium.


Today, folk art pieces featuring skeletons and skulls are found in many sizes, shapes, and colors. While they may at first seem macabre to some, the images are not meant to be frightening or unpleasant. Instead, they reflect the Mexicans’ honest appraisal of human mortality and an understanding and acceptance of death as a natural part of life.

 

For more information, plus great photos of a traditional celebration, you may also be interested in our Squidoo lens on Day of the Dead.

We also have a new book on the topic. Unfortunately, we are sold out here at CRIZMAC until the reprint arrives in early November (I know–really rotten timing, right??)  However, I believe Amazon still has some copies available:

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  1. [...] our post about all the skulls and skeletons associated with Day of the Dead, we talked about how this imagery serves as a humorous reminder that life is short. You can fear [...]

  2. [...] fun, to be sure, but they are meant to convey an important message, as well. In our post about the imagery associated with the Day of the Dead, we looked at the work of José Guadalupe Posada (1852–1913). A political cartoonist and [...]

  3. [...] Sugar art has been created in Mexico since colonial times. For the Day of the Dead, sugar skulls represented a departed soul, with the name of the person being honored written on the forehead. The skulls were then placed on home altars (ofrendas) or gravestones in honor of that soul’s return. Today, the skulls are also popular gifts. Like valentines, sugar skulls are exchanged by friends and sweethearts as a token of an affection and love that will transcend death. (If this seems like a strange idea, you may want to ready our post about Day of the Dead imagery.) [...]