Dia de los Muertos - More than just a Mexican Halloween

For the eleventh consecutive year, Hollywood Forever Cemetery was filled with revelry, not remorse, as thousands gathered to celebrate their dearly departed during Dia de los Muertos – or Day of the Dead. 


Partygoers of all ages crowded the gravel walkways, narrow roads, and grassy graveyards, filling the moratorium with celebration, and filling their calaca-painted faces with churros, tortas, and bacon-wrapped hot dogs.  They came dressed in endless representations of death or as the extravagant La Calavera Catrina, the traditional "Dapper Skeleton" costume of a female corpse dressed in highly ornate fashion. 


They came with their children, and with their grandparents; they came with friends and coworkers; they came with complete strangers who happened to live nearby.  They came to witness one of the most colorful and festive Hispanic holidays (if not one of the most unorthodox), as participants built and exhibited wildly imaginative altars dedicated to deceased friends and family on top of actual graves.  These memorials often included the favorite foods and drinks of the dead, and were mostly embellished with tequilas, marigolds, and ornate calaveras de azucar – or edible sugar skulls.  Some included videos or slideshows of the deceased.  Some included costumed interpretations of ancient Aztec gods or of the loved one's favorite animals.  Some included puppets or grand papier-mâché scenes of exquisite detail.  Magnificently large altars and meticulously tiny altars lined the walkways, and viewers were encouraged to vote on their favorites for a $3000 grand prize.  The festival's website calls the altars "the soul of the event."   


While many toured the crypt's creative shrines, others poured into mausoleums that were festooned with local artworks of every kind imaginable.  Parties lined up in open spaces or along reflecting pools to eat traditional foods or to imbibe seemingly endless tequila concoctions.  Still more guests gathered around the numerous stages and event areas that hosted tribal dancing, live bands, spiritual prayer ceremonies, and ancient ritual performances dedicated to the dead.  But Dia de los Muertos is just as equally a celebration of life as it is of death.


"Everyone thinks Dia de los Muertos is just about dead people, but the dead remind us of the blessing of life," explained George Pardo, who has been coming to Hollywood Forever Cemetery's Dia de los Muertos festival since he moved to Los Angeles in 2002.  "People see all the skulls and all the costumes and assume the festival is something morbid.  In reality, it's just the opposite.""


Pardo is also adamant that "Dia de los Muertos is not the Mexican version of Halloween."  In fact, despite the prevalence of skeleton costumes, a propensity for using skulls as decorations, and its usual proximity to graveyards, the Day of the Dead has virtually nothing to do with Halloween – even if they are only days apart.  To clarify, Halloween is the eve of All Hallow's Day – or all Saint's Day – and the following day is All Soul's Day, with which Dia de los Muertos coincides.   The fact that this ancient Hispanic holiday takes place on the same day as the Christian All Soul's Day is no accident, as the Spanish conquistadors who wished to convert native Central and South American tribes to Christianity attempted to do so by incorporating the seemingly grotesque rituals of indigenous tribes into their own celebration for the dead.


However, these attempts failed at eradicating the tradition, and in a twist of poetic justice, Dia de los Muertos seems to be gaining more and more momentum while All Soul's Day remains an abstract, exclusively religious holiday.        


"Years ago, even last year, there were half as many people," said Sal Rosas, another one of Hollywood Forever Cemetery's annual Dia de los Muertos participants.  "Every year there seems to be twice as many people, and not just Latinos.  I think it's a funner holiday, and everyone enjoys it no matter where they're from.  Who wants to be so sad when we can pay our respects while we celebrate death?  Dia de los Muertos is a party!"