Death in the History of Mexico

National Museum of Death

A tour of the collection of the Museo Nacional de la Muerte

Pre-Hispanic Era
The cultures of ancient Mexico were heterogeneous, but they shared common roots of religious fervor which included polytheism, human sacrifice and cannibalism as an indispensable part to explain and make sense of the universe's workings.

For these inhabitants of the Pre-Hispanic world, the funerary cult occupied a place of primary importance.

The artistic pieces that are conserved were designed as ofrendas to accompany the dead to the world beyond.

The nahuas depicted their calendar with the use of skulls.

Miquiztli, sixth day of the month.

Miccailhuiltontli, the ninth month, when the fiesta of the little dead is celebrated; and Hueimiccailhuitlo, the tenth month, when the great festival of the dead is held.

Tzompantli has two forms, a monument with rows of skulls: an architectural construction with stone skulls...

...or with the heads of those who have been sacrificed to honor the gods.

New Hispanic Period
After the conquest, evangelists introduced Catholicism, banned human sacrifices, cannibalism, cremation, and demonized all the Pre-Hispanic gods.

They used the manuals to teach the believers how to arrive with a sin free soul and reach a good death. Death of a character from a privileged social status was a show.

According to funerary books, the event turned into a pompous funerary celebration with popular attendance.

The funeral procession left Cathedral to a temple or convent where masses were celebrated and a stone in honor of the deceased was placed.

The skeletons, bones and tibias were the basic decoration.

Independent Mexico
Free of religious education, the poorest people started to visit their dead on the Day of the Dead; cemeteries became the epicenter of folk festivals and pilgrimages, with gastronomic, alcoholic, musical and sexual excesses.

Liberals in power changed the religious sense of the colonial funerary rituals for an heroic and patriotic feeling.

This gave way to worship national heroes through public tributes to the mortuary remains, masks and monuments.

The tradition of portraying dead children came from Spain. They were painted as "little angels" and the wealthy families commissioned this kind of oil paintings.

As photography became accessible to all social strata, portraits recognized under the ritual of "the death as a girl" were more common.

Having a photo with dead children dressed in white or as saints became popular, and they were also decorated with flowers and crowns, alone or in company.

Death in the graphic arts
During the first half of the nineteenth century, the mock funeral oration, false epitaph, dialogue between imaginary dead and invented will were used with satirical purposes to criticize current governments, as a history of the satirical verses that became known as " calaveras", which were published in newspapers and magazines as cartoons.

In the popular engraving one of the renowned artists was Manuel Manillo, over whom José Guadalupe Posada built his great work.

When Posada got into the world of calaveras, his art reached great heights. No one as he captured the historial moment of the party in the cemeteries.

Then there was the vision of Julio Ruelas, which was tragic, obsessive, morbid, dark, true to European fashion, and preferred by artists, writers and aristocrats.

Contemporary period
Intellectuals and artists built the idea that all Mexicans had preferential treatment with death, which caused no fear and that they celebrated its arrival.

The Mexican people have taken these visions of death and have represented it their own views through folk art found in every community, town and city in the country.

Mexicans have death as their own and the ability to review it from the proposals of Mexican folk artists confronts us to this unique and personal reality that challenges us ...

...raises questions and allows us to live this "significant experience" proposed in the National Museum of Death.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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