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The botany of El Dia De Los Muertos

The African marigold’s signature scent is said to guide the dead.
The African marigold’s signature scent is said to guide the dead. Tribune News Service

In the wreckage of the conquest of Mexico, the Nahuatl religion of Mexico blended with Jesuit “inculturation” to create a unique memorial. The complex beliefs of life, death and the afterworld shared by the Aztecs was celebrated at many points during the year.

In the Catholic world a similar date of remembrance was held over two feast days at the end of October. Both All Saints and All Souls Days shared many features that came together in Mexico to create the most beautiful way to remember the dead: El Dia De Los Muertos.

Day of the Dead, with its beautiful sugar skulls, is a three-day celebration when the veil between life and death is temporarily drawn aside.

What distinguishes the altars erected in homes and graveyards are flowers, the Aztec symbol of sacrifice and the ephemeral nature of life. Three flowers appear time and again in this celebration, decorating altars in home and workplace, or laid upon family grave sites.

The most potent of these is the African marigold, the big orange pompoms sold in Latino communities as cempasuchil (cem-pah-soo-chi) for this somber fiesta. This is not an Old World flower, but a native of southern Mexico sent to Europe centuries ago, where the large-flowered hybrid was developed, then returned to its homeland.

Indigenous people believe the potent scent of this plant is recognized by the dead lured home over these consecrated nights to the family altar to partake in their favorite vices. Altars may include offerings of tequila, cigarettes, mole and fruit to please the ancestors just as Aztecs did for their own remembrance centuries ago.

The great cockscomb amaranth is the second most common flower. It is the source of a grain that predates corn in Mexico, feeding the Nahuatl long before the Aztecs settled Tenochtitlan. These tiny grains were made into cakes and offered to Huitzilopochtli and other deities of the dead. Today only the flowers remain, with blood red leaves and stalk to suggest the human sacrifices so vital to this ancient culture.

The third flower is gladiolus, which are beloved for the large wands of flowers that continue to bloom long after cutting. These are sold everywhere during the lead-up to Muertos so the altars and graves may be intensely colorful for as long as possible.

Each of the three days of Muertos celebration is devoted to a different theme. The first night remembers all children who died in youth. The second night is devoted to all who died in the previous year. The third and final night is for all beloved dead and gone.

In Mexico entire families come together in this blending of ancient ancestor worship and Catholic feasts of All Saints and All Souls. Markets fill with copal, the tree resin incense of Aztec temples still burned on altars and graves. Growers bring great baskets of flowers in from the countryside. In Oaxaca, they sell both the native marigold progenitor and its hybrid descendent, bringing these flowers full circle again in this multicultural celebration.

The week before Muertos the families come together to create their altar and devise their offerenda (gifts) to the visiting spirits. This is quite similar to American families decorating a Christmas tree.

The altar features pictures of those to whom it is dedicated. Everything is set by the first night when relatives gather to dine on special breads called huesos de los santos (bones of the holy). Whenever possible, they venture out into graveyards to be there to greet the spirits when they return.

There is no doubt that the grisly remains of massive immigration across the hostile dry lands of Mexico and the border states will evoke many altars both here and in Latin America. This year let El Dia De Los Muertos be for them and the many families mourning their losses.