The Day of the Dead celebration is inspiring everything from home décor to a brand new museum. It’s also making us think differently about death. By Gillian Drummond. Cover photo courtesy of Astek Inc.
More than 100,000 people are expected to join Tucson’s All Souls Procession this Sunday, in the city’s annual celebration of the dead.
A two-mile-long procession of painted faces, banners, masks, shrines and performers will wind its way through the city’s downtown streets in what is effectively a great big funeral – but a celebratory and very creative one.
Now in its 25th year, it began with a handful of performance artists looking to find a creative way to mourn. Today, it is unique as the only procession of its size and kind in the world, say its organizers. There are no religions associated with it, and “people bring to it their own traditions,” says Melanie Cooley, volunteer coordinator for the event.
But Tucson’s proximity to the Mexico border, and its large Hispanic population, mean that the prevailing tradition at the procession is Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
Dia de los Muertos, a holiday celebrated throughout Mexico, South America and Spain, is all about keeping the departed spirits happy. People make food and private altars for their departed loved ones. They decorate with bright Mexican marigolds. The Calaveras, or skulls, used as decorations are traditionally grinning wide.
Filmmaker, writer and composer Daniel Buckley, who has participated in and filmed the All Souls Procession for years, applauds the Mexican American approach to death – “that it’s not scary but a wonderful mystic part of life and that the dead are always with us and they never leave our hearts.”
Daniel, a resident of Tucson since the 1970s, tells of seeing Mexican American families in Tucson bringing offerings to their dead relatives in the cemetery, including their favorite foods. “They’ll be having parties on the gravestones. Seeing that, and seeing young kids not being scared of it, is a joy,” he says. “Most of us Anglos go to a funeral and sob our eyes out.”
Melanie Cooley, who works in information technology at the University of Arizona, has been volunteering for the All Souls Procession for ten years. She grew up in an atheist family and so never experienced the community that churchgoers have, she says. All Souls and its several hundred year-round volunteers appear to have filled that gap. “For me the community around it is extraordinary. For me personally it fills a role that the church does [for others].”
Her family did not have a belief in the afterlife but their approach to death was nevertheless negative, says Melanie. “There was a lot of anger around it.” All Souls has caused a shift for her. “The biggest change I have experienced is to become more comfortable with the concept of death. It’s a universal human condition. Once everything else has stopped, that’s what we all share. We’re loving somebody and we’re losing them.”
Tracy Hurley Martin’s fascination with death led to her co-founding the Museum of Morbid Anatomy, which opened this year in Brooklyn, New York. Its current exhibition, The Death of Mourning, includes hair art, death masks and post-mortem photography. Day of the Dead permeates the exhibitions, says Tracy, now chair of the board of the museum, which operates as a non-profit.
Tracy and twin sister Tonya Hurley travel regularly to Mexico to promote Tonya’s gothic young adult books (her ghostgirl series is big there). “I’m drawn to Day of the Dead and to Mexico. It resonates most with me. It’s celebratory and it’s festive and it’s much much healthier. I think it’s so beautiful to put out your departed’s favorite meal,” says Tracy, who plans to visit Tucson’s All Souls Procession next year.
Tracy’s home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which she shares with musician husband Vince Clarke – of Erasure, Depeche Mode and Yazoo fame – has a certain morbid flare to it, albeit a tasteful one. Much of the art and objects they have in their house are linked to death, from framed skeleton sketches on a wall to sugar skull cushions in their breakfast nook. Tracy would overdo the death-and-anatomy-inspired décor, she says. But Vince keeps her in check. “He’s the organizer.”
The success of the museum has been “amazing” and the 4200 sq ft venue is booked almost every night for events. But Tracy says she’s not surprised by the public’s response. “[Dying] is the biggest thing that happens to everyone. Being obsessed with it is just normal. Either we embrace it or just deny it. I wish I’d had a morbid anatomy museum in Pennsylvania when I was growing up.”
When Emily Evans, an anatomist and medical illustrator, first saw Day of the Dead imagery it had a profound effect on her. She traveled from her home in England to Mexico to witness the celebration for herself. “I love the juxtaposition of beauty and anatomy, what lies beneath. And I think the decorative element of the sugar skull is pretty, basically. It seems to strip away the dark/gothic/punk ethos of just a skull that we’ve known for years and [which we] all have our own connotations about. It’s the perfect marriage of something edgy and cultural together with pretty swirls and details we associate with clothes, jewelry and interior decoration.”
Yet Emily returned from Mexico empty-handed. “Every time I saw something, I would ask myself ‘Would you have this in your home?’ and more often than not, the answer was no. So I wanted to create something contemporary, decadent and elegant, something people actually would have in their homes.”
First came sugar skull wallpaper, which she pitched to a Latin-themed bar in London. The owners ended up using it throughout their Barrio chain in London. Then members of the public wanted to know where to buy it and Emily went into production. The wallpaper sells for £120 a roll and is still her bestseller at her Anatomy Boutique, based out of London.
Emily also sells sugar skull cushions (the ones Tracy has in her home), sugar skull prints, and a black and white drawing based on images of La Catrina. In Mexican folklore, La Catrina is death itself in any number of guises.
Emily opened Anatomy Boutique online as a trial (she works full-time as a medical illustrator and teaches anatomy and dissection at Cambridge University). Her unique take on home decor has been such a hit she will open a bricks-and-mortar store in north London next month.
Apart from Day of the Dead imagery, there is a cardiac wallpaper (anatomical hearts entwined with each other) and a set of ‘Histology’ plates based on microscopic images of the bowel, testicle, liver and more. There is also a dinnerware set called Anatomy of Digestion. Shoppers can take their pick from imagery of teeth, arteries, lobules or mucous membranes. Many of these products are also available at the Museum of Morbid Anatomy store.
California-based Astek Inc, a producer of custom wall coverings, first developed its sugar skull wallpaper for a restaurant client. “They wanted to keep the Day of the Dead feel to it but at the same time not have it be too deadly or too gothic,” says Jeff Dey, director of business development.
And that’s the aesthetic beauty of Day of the Dead imagery. It’s bright and despite what it represents, it’s happy.
Perhaps for that reason, sugar skull imagery has gone way into the mainstream, from shot glasses to duvet covers – even Day of the Dead versions of Hello Kitty.
One of Daniel Buckley’s most prized possessions is the real deal: a ceramic painted skull made in Tucson by artist Patricia Silva of Sol Design Studio. It sits on a shelf in his hallway, the first thing visitors see when they walk into his house, with lavish embellishments, marigold eyes, and a heart painted on one of its teeth. It was Daniel’s gift to himself on his 60th birthday.
Meanwhile, in Tracy Hurley Martin’s home in Brooklyn, skeletons and skulls in some form are literally part of the furniture – something her son Oscar,9, is none too happy about. “He hates it. He’s going through that stage where he thinks the house is haunted and I’m creepy,” laughs Tracy. But at least he is sleeping by himself again. For a while there “we had a visitor in our bed every night.”
* Also in this issue: an interview with Mel Dominguez, the artist behind this year’s All Souls Procession poster; and the story behind the Mexican marigold, the flower associated with Dia de los Muertos.
Facts about Tucson’s All Souls Procession
- It has grown from a dozen performance artists in 1990 to more than 100,000 participants today.
- It is run by non-profit Many Mouths One Stomach, which receives 70% of its money from public donations and the rest through grants.
- Traditionally, All Souls Procession falls on the Sunday after Day of the Dead.
- An economic impact study carried out by organizers found that for each person who attends, $175.50 is put back into the local community through spending.
- This year’s procession takes place November 9th and ends at the Mercado San Agustin. More details at allsoulsprocession.org