The beloved animated Disney film “Coco” has helped introduce the beautiful Mexican tradition of Día de los Muertos to the world. But the Mexican holiday’s history among Mesoamerican peoples goes back thousands of years. Today, it’s largely seen as a cultural export to entertain tourists or even to counteract the influence of America’s Halloween on Mexican culture.
Its colorful and festival-like aesthetic may obscure the fact that Día de los Muertos was originally intended to be a somber celebration, one of deceased friends and families. And mental health experts have also started pointing to the psychological benefits that come along with many Día de Muertos traditions.
Grief is universal, but how we deal with it is largely influenced by culture.
Day of the Dead celebrations gives Mexicans an outlet for their emotions. With the start of Día de los Muertos celebrations, which usually begin around November 2, Mexicans embrace their losses and their grief in a supportive environment. There are time-honored traditions of shopping for supplies to build the ofrenda as a family, or visiting cemeteries, which are rarely visited outside the holiday. Thanks to its very social nature, Día de Muertos can be very therapeutic.
Mental health experts acknowledge the benefits the holiday can bring.
In an interview with El Sol de Toluca, clinical psychologist Erick Arturo Escandón Pérez pointed to the fact that unlike the rest of the year, November 2 is a day to put aside grief and instead embrace a celebration of life and death.
“Death is no longer seen as a catastrophic event so we give ourselves permission to be happy, to eat chocolate skulls and remember beautiful memories. For this reason, the altars are made with the foods and drinks or things that that person liked,” he said.
Some people may have trouble with the belief that the dead return to the altar as part of the tradition. But Pérez says that this too can be beneficial. “It means that you have the chance to say anything that was left unsaid before they died,” he mentioned.
Taking the stigma out of talking about death also leads us to express what we want when it is our time to die and to communicate that to family. This is important because it can help families find closure when the time comes, knowing that they respected the person’s wishes.
However, outside of Día de los Muertos, most people revert to making death a taboo subject.
Although Día de los Muertos celebrations are common throughout Mexico, most people find it difficult to talk about death or view it as a natural process of life. Dr. Charlier Kuri, the Head of the Service of the Mental Health Unit of the Hospital Juárez de México, said that once Día de Muertos ends, few people go to the cemetery because it’s hard for families to accept the loss; you don’t want to relive a situation that causes pain.
“It is very difficult to face emotions and reality, so we avoid talking about death and we make it a taboo subject, especially with older adults. Even when they themselves express that they feel near death,” she explained.
And the holiday’s positive effects on mental health aren’t the same for everyone.
Although the grieving process reportedly lasts about six months, grieving the loss of someone you care for may take longer. And for some people, the reminders of their loss that come with Día de Muertos can often be too much to handle.