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Day of the Dead and the psychology of death in Mexico

In Mexico, every November 2, the Day of the Dead is celebrated, the most important holiday in the country. This is a holiday to remember and honor those who are no longer with us. It is a time where festivals are held to celebrate life, the arrival of the souls of the deceased from beyond.

Day of the dead tradition

The Day of the Dead is not as morbid as its name suggests, since it is actually a celebration of the lives of the ancestors of families that are no longer in this world. In the tradition of the Day of the Dead,  the loved ones of the deceased offer them on their altar: flowers, food, sweets and the drinks that this precious family member liked the most.

According to tradition, on the night of November 1 the souls of children and saints arrive on earth, and on November 2 that of the rest of the deceased.

As part of the Día de Muertos celebration, family members will dress up in colorful costumes and paint the iconic sugar skull on their faces. They will also decorate altars to honor deceased family members. At night, each altar is lit candles, as it is said that being illuminated prevents souls from straying from the path.  These altars have arches or doors, which according to tradition, is where the souls that come from the world of the deceased enter.

On the eve of the Day of the Dead there are also literary skull contests, which are popular phrases written in the form of light and funny rhymes with a burlesque way.

Why do traditions arise?


Traditions represent a critical part of our culture. They help form the structure and foundation of our families and our society; they also create a social approach that unites groups within our society and provides them with identity and security.

Human beings are by nature social beings and we often come together through shared practices and traditions. Even families, the most fundamental social group, find unity through traditions and benefit from their cohesion.

Throughout history, when families had to come together in communities for protection and division of labor, traditions contributed to general prosperity and group loyalty. Today, there are still various traditions that show unifying and practical benefits for society, for example: performing the national anthem, school traditions, observing holidays such as Easter, Christmas, etc.

Human cultures have always relied on traditions to rule, to establish shared and standard behavior, and to keep society functioning more or less equitably.

Traditions are a fundamental pillar when forming the identity of an individual , as they remind us that we are part of a history that defines our past, that shapes who we are today and who we will become. To recognize yourself, you must first find yourself within history, within culture and within traditions.

The trend towards tradition

The Karolinska Institute in Sweden tries to answer the question why tradition arises, creating a psychological model behind the very notion of tradition. Apparently humans have a strong tendency to imitation that makes us similar to sheep. Researchers estimate that this trend likely stems from a threat of punishment, as well as people’s willingness to copy others.

In the study, the researchers conducted four experiments with 120 participants. In the first, participants had to choose between two images (A and B) on a screen 20 times. They were alerted that if they chose the wrong answer, they would receive an electric shock (which they had previously felt); although the test was completed, no electric shocks were applied. In turn, the participants watched a video in which one person chose image A. From this video, more than 95 percent of the participants also chose image A.

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When participants were promised a reward (such as movie tickets), they followed the person in the video only 60 percent. And in the case of arbitrary punishment, the participants followed in the footsteps of the people in the video below 70 percent. In the latest experiment, the researchers found that participants were more likely to choose answer A if they watched videos of previous participants choosing the same answer. Thus, they suggest that the ‘passing down’ of traditions may be based on a survival instinct to avoid danger and punishment.

When we are promised a reward, we tend to be more inclined to break patterns, and social learning begins to play a lesser role in our minds, on the other hand, when it comes to avoiding danger, social learning has a powerful influence on our behavior. when we see that it has shown good results. In other words, people adhere to tradition for safety and survival. But when they see that tradition offers no protection against danger, they stop following it.

Psychological approach to the Day of the Dead

Within the psychological framework, this tradition is found in a social context where it is possible to analyze the collective behavior of said society and the behavior of the subject in it.

From the psychological point of view, the Day of the Dead is seen as an opportunity to give thanks for life and reflect on how we can live in the best possible way, so that our passage through earth occurs in the most pleasant way. This tradition changes the traditional way of thinking about death , as the subject adapts to their culture and social context to adapt to this joyous way of assimilating the death of a loved one.

In Mexico, as children, the tradition of celebrating death in a joyful and festive way is instilled in them. Although it is still a loss -in which the corresponding mourning is carried out-, every November 2 that sadness for having lost a loved one is put aside and he is honored, as he passes through life and the return of his soul on this day.

Death, in this sense, is not stated as an absence or as a lack; on the contrary, it is conceived as a new stage: the dead man comes, walks and observes the altar, perceives, smells, tastes, listens. It is not an alien being, but a living presence. The metaphor of life itself is told on an altar, and death is understood as a constant rebirth, as an infinite process that makes us understand that those of us who are offering today will be invited to the party tomorrow.

This is a time used to reflect on how you can live in such a way that few regrets remain, reflect on the moments that have been lost and become aware if there is still time, to begin to recover them. Now is the time to apologize for the wrongs that have been done; It is time to express appreciation.

One of the lessons of this loss-based tradition is to realize the gift that has been given to us: life. Learn to respect it and become aware that this is a short, precious and fragile path.

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Hello Readers, I am Nikki Bella a Psychology student. I have always been concerned about human behavior and the mental processes that lead us to act and think the way we do. My collaboration as an editor in the psychology area of ​​Well Being Pole has allowed me to investigate further and expand my knowledge in the field of mental health; I have also acquired great knowledge about physical health and well-being, two fundamental bases that are directly related and are part of all mental health.

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