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Calacas alegricas del sida. Taller de Grfica Popular, Mxico, 1997 


Death and its representations in mexico: perspectives of the nurses and the professors

Manuel Amezcua
Jefe de B. de Hospitalización. Hospital Universitario San Cecilio. Granada, España

Mailing Adress: Manuel Amezcua. Apartado nº 734, 18080 Granada, España

Manuscript acepted by 30.3.02

Index Enferm (Gran) 2002; 39:24-28 (original version in Spanish, printed issue)








How to cite this document



Amezcua M. Death and its representations in mexico: perspectives of the nurses and the professors. Index de Enfermería [Index Enferm] (digital edition) 2002; 39. In </index-enfermeria/39revista/39e24-28.php> Consulted





Fundament: In the Mexican society, and especially among the professionals teaching nursing studies, there is a double discourse concerning death. The first approach is the one that considers it from a pathological perspective and tries to institutionalize its treatment. On the other hand, the second approach is based in the collective imaginary, and incorporates the Christian conception and the pre-Columbian cosmovision.

Objective: The objective of this study is to check the cultural reference frame used by the nursing professionals in their daily discourse. The question asked was: What do professors answer when asked about death?

Design: It is a qualitative and descriptive study. The information obtained comes from biographic interviews that took place in the National School of Nursing and Obstetrics in the Universidad Nacional Autónoma in Mexico.

Participants and data gathering: Nine professors coming from different parts of the country participated in this study. They contributed with a written or oral story of an experience about death that they considered important in their lives.

Analysis: Description of the content of the stories structuring them in three main categories: description about death customs, the expression of their cultural imaginary and the phenomena of knowledge transfer.

Conclusions: in the professor's speech, the cultural traditions of the person were more present than the biomedical context in which they live. The survival of these traditions is still present due to the importance that they give to traditional knowledge.










In the year 2001 and because of my academic stay in Mexico, I had the chance to spend the Day of the Deaths in the capital and in Oaxaca, in the South of the Republic. Thus I had the opportunity to see two very different ways to understand one of the most important festivities for the Mexican people, the Day of the Deaths. People from the city of Mexico enjoy the days previous to Day of the Deaths (1 and 2 of November) on a very special and unique way. The rakes or "calacas" spread all over the city as a transgression that reminds of carnival because of the mixture of religious traditions with spirituality, rituals, oral traditions, jokes, humor and the hidden critic to all what is holy and human (Turok, 2000). The colonial city of Oaxaca, which is home for one of the greatest indigenous communities of the country, makes of this festivity a time for coexistence and the cemetery plays a mayor role. The Day of the Deaths becomes a time when the catholic ritual mixes with the pre-Colombian tradition, as an example of the multiplicity of cultural manifestations of this festivity. The best examples are the variety of crafts, music, decoration, foods and other expressions of popular arts (Gonzalez Esperon, 1997).

The way the Mexican interpret death, has attracted the so called First World because of the contradiction its represents (there is fear to death but they laugh about it) and because of the respect that it represents for that First World: regardless of the religious belief, death is considered to be an end, a failure, something undesirable, and therefore there is a resistance to it, even to the extreme of denying its natural development making of it something that requires medical care, as if it would be an illness. I had the opportunity to enjoy the way Mexico experiences the Day of the Deaths thanks to the nurses I shared my academic duties with; they even let me enter their homes and I could share with them and their families their beliefs and rituals. Even though they were nurses, they did not have problems to show me a new space where death it's all over the places, whether on the public or private space.

There are many studies related to the way Mexican people distorts the traditionally gloomy sense of death, providing it with a more vital and ludic character. That other interpretation of death can be seen on local customs, on literature, arts; and we can find it also on historical and archeological traces (Manrique, 1994; Argüello y Gonzalez, 2000; Zarauz, 2000). However, what catches my attention when revising the bibliography about this issue in the field of health care is that there is a great lack of literature on death interpretations from a cross-cultural perspective. Two complete different interpretations of death cohabit without conflict among the teachers at the School of Nursing and Childcare of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico: on the one side, there is the traditional one of industrialized societies and therefore, death is analyzed from a technical-professional perspective by the emerging a new specialty, tanatology (Cerezo, 2000). On the other side, there is also the influence of the traditional interpretations of death which survive thanks to the cultural expressions that we referred to before. The aim of this study is to analyze the cultural framework used by nursing teachers and to be able to answer the following question: what are teachers talking about when they are asked about death? The study takes into account the ideas of cross-cultural nursing developed by Leininger and the theoretical referents are the models of traditional health by Spector, who emphasizes the balance between body, mind and spirit, which needed to reach health (Spector, 2002:33).


The participants and methodology


They did a qualitative descriptive study by analyzing tales. It took place at the National School of Nursing and Childcare (ENEO) of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM), probably the most important school of the nation in terms of its size and number of registered students. About thirty teachers with an interest on different aspects of anthropology of care participated on the research project. Once the goals of the study were established, the participants had to write a tale about personal experiences related to death. The tale could be written or taped. The participation of the project was voluntary and at the end there were 10 tales: three of them written, and seven recorded. The information was presented on a common session.

Once transcribed, the contents of the tales were analyzed and we could see three main categories: description of the rituals of death, expression of their cultural imaginary and the phenomenon of the transmission of knowledge. Of these three categories we could differentiate 36 sub-categories that allow us to rebuild the idea that the teachers have about death and its characteristics. The word processing program used in the study was Atla/ti.




All the participants were women, with ages between 20 and 60 years old. Although small, the sample shows the diversity of territories within the country, since there are references to places as different and distant as the northern state of Coahuila, where the influence of north America is clear; to the coast of the Gulf (Veracruz, region of El Tajin, state of Tabasco); the Federal District and around (Xochimilco, Puebla, state of Morelos), and down the southern state of Chiapas. Half of the cases reflect the process of cultural transference within the family due to two main reasons: a) a generational change, as is the case for the totonaca's grandmother of Denis, who never learn to speak Spanish and has a pre-columbine vision of the world: and (b) the migration from the country to the city or as a consequence of the union between people of different origins with different customs, as is the case of Adriana, from Coahuila, who is married with man from the Federal District but born in the region of Veracruz; or the case of Edda and Ana Maria, of north African parents who settled in Mexico. The rest of teachers talked about the traditions of the Day of the Deaths at their hometown (Martha Blanca, Amanda and Maria del Pilar) with an special emphasis on their own experiences as Childs (Teresa, Sofia and Rocio). Two of the tales have been published (Guillen, 2002: Rodriguez Jimenez, 2002)


To die in order to keep on living


"I came to the earth to live and enjoy it, but this does not end here, this remains after death and I am glad to return to the earth in order to enjoy it at the spiritual level". These words by Martha express the feeling of the people from Xochimilco and they highlight the vitality of the Mexican when having to face death and the passing from this world to the other world. The totonaca grandmother, who used to celebrate the Day of the Deaths in March, said that what she was doing was to celebrate the miracle of life by offering seeds from her crop and wild fruits to the earth "because earth gave us the life".

The Mexican cries and celebrates death at the same time; death always raises very intense feelings. The Mexican suffers when he has to face death directly through the death of some relative, and then he shows himself against it, crying, shouting, getting mad at it, blaming God for it, even if death comes after a long period of illness and suffer. That difficult moment is never welcomed and the Mexican is never prepared for it, he will not accept the fact of death. However, finally he will accept death as something natural, not as an end but as a beginning for a new "existence", of a new dimension of life. Then sadness transforms into a need to call up deaths, to live together again with them; and the way to do this is by commemorating them, at the private sphere, through offerings and visits to the tomb.

If sadness is expresses by crying and complaints, the importance of death is expressed on the rituals. In some places the funeral and the burial are a communal action since family, friends and relatives get together at a place (either the church, the home or the cemetery) to celebrate that moment in different ways (praying, offering flowers, foods or listening to music). We see again this communal way of celebrating death on celebrations such as the Day of the Deaths. Amanda defines the way they celebrate the death of a person in the state of Morelos as a "social party" since funerals are the time when people get together, when praying times become collective lunches, and all this surrounded by flowers and music "mainly the music the deceased used to like". For the youngest this is a time of partying; a time for flirting, for finding a girlfriend. All this activity it's repeated again after the funeral and also during the nine days after the burial. After this time, the party starts again. The celebration reaches its climax with the burial of a symbolic cross made of flowers and sand. The cross is made with the contributions of the friends of the death person and its creation strengthens the friendship among the people that participated on the ritual.


From home to the pantheon


"We do not know were death people go, but wherever they are, they have a need for our prayers so that they can reach the light on the dark process of dying. If they reach the light the will be able to be here with us again at a spiritual level". This is the way Teresa understands the other world: a mysterious and close place where you go with a return ticket. Sofia speaks of the Purgatory as the place where death people are suffering only provisionally because souls escape from it in order to ask for help to their relatives. The relatives can help them to redeem their sins through their prayers and songs.

The month of November is the month of the souls and it is a tradition in Mexico to interrupt daily activities in order to be able to concentrate on the family spirits. There is an animist itinerary from the house, where spirits are welcome at a private level, to the pantheon, where the encounter with the spirits it's a more public one.

During the last days of October families gather all what they need to offer to their spirits. An altar is erected on the most visible place in the house, on top of a table with a clothe and colored paper. There on that table they will place some pictures of the death ones together with personal belongings and the food they liked best, including drinks and the smelly "cempasuchíl", a pot marigold or "flower of the death"; and a candle of figs oil to lit the way for the spirits. Sofia's says "souls come as skeletons dressed in white and with candles on their hands to light their way, and we had to show them the way so that they can arrive here. That is why we erected the altars and we decorate them with banana leaves and coconut palm trees, with flowers and fruits, candles, the flower of the sempoal and incense. We also had the pictures of the death ones right by the picture of the death's favorite saint. The smell of the flower and its color, the food, the salt and the water create a very special atmosphere and therefore it welcomes the spirit to rest here and eat and to enjoy some time with the family before they have to go back".

Some people decide before dying how they want their altars to look like. That was the case for her uncle Hector, who had asthma: "When I die, my friend, do not forget to put bier on my altar, but not too cold, because if it's cold it's not good for my health". On their transit over the world, not all the spirits have someone who puts up an altar with sugar cane to welcome them. That is why some people leave a glass of water on the door so that those spirits that have lost their way see that someone thinks of them even if no one cries for them.

"The spirits can rest and we are glad to share this space with them and to have done our duty with them" The pantheon becomes thus a place for coexistence in

the Day of the Deaths. Days before, families work on having the tombs ready: they sweep the floor, they paint them, they plant flowers around it, they bring natural, paper or plastic flowers to the pantheon, etc. On the second of November in Tenosique the families arrive early at the cemetery "they come walking for all over the places to the pantheon, which is outside of the town. They bring offerings, they pray, lit candles and spread the incense of the copal over the tombs. People then cry, laugh, talk and drink bier, to later visit the tombs of friends and neighbors". The thousands of lights that light the cemetery, the communal meals and the music are paid off with the savings of the whole year, and some people even get into debt in order to be able to have their duty done with their spirits".

That the domestic ritual has a spiritual meaning is commonly accepted by the nurses. However, not all of them agree on the communal rituals at the pantheon. Teresa says that "In our family we the children were always scared of the consequences of what we saw at the pantheons. People drank (alcohol) and we did not like the consequences of it. That made us resistant to the celebrations of the Day of the Deaths".


An inherited knowledge


"I think that it is very important to know our origins and keep our traditions so that our grandchildren can repeat them in the future, and they do not get lost". Most of the teachers agreed on the importance of keeping traditions and therefore they talk a lot about them on their stories. Almost all of them learnt from their parents at a very early age the respect they have to show to death people. In any case, its during the Day of the Deaths when the phenomenon of the passing on of traditions its more intense: "there would be unending nights full of stories about death relatives, about their lives and experiences, and the family would extol everything about the deceased relative. The people that did not know them would imagine them so clearly thanks to the descriptions made by the family". Rocio remembers how the story telling and legends about death people would be the perfect excuse to gather family and relatives around the table or by the door, specially on those nights when the atmosphere would invite to this kind of gatherings. "At the time we did not have electricity at home and the moon shine would illuminate our faces of panic".

Long time ago it was important that kids would participate on the rituals of death and that is why there was a space reserved for them at the funeral parlor, when praying and at the pantheons. Children would start to get familiar with death through games and by association with partying and flirting time. "They would make us clean the shell of the egg to fill them up with confetti. Then we would take them to pantheon and we would break them on the heads of our God fathers. I remember the preparations for Day of the Deaths, like cooking special foods, or staying the whole day and night at the pantheon listening to the marimba; I remember the mass and the great party".

Some teachers do not have referents because they were born at a place with different traditions. Adriana remembers how shocked she was when she moved from the North of the Republic to the Federal District: when her mother died a neighbor brought a bottle of oil which she innocently used for preparing the food for the funeral parlor. Later she discovered that the oil was for lighting a candle for the death person. The strength of these traditions about death in Mexico is so strong and even people not familiar with it gets involved on the celebrations. That is the case for Edda and Ana Maria, who were familiar with the American way of celebrating Hallowen because one of their parents was North American. Over the time, the influence of the Mexican tradition, led them to put up their first altar for the death. That is now a tradition in the family:

"My mother died three years ago and ever since them I feel the need to put up an altar.from that year on I have always put up an altar". I have a brother who just died a few months ago and this year I felt the need to have his photo and other personal belongings in the altar. But this year also I realized that my mother and my brother were not the only death people in my family and I began to look for the pictures of my grandparents, my uncles, etc".

Families make a great effort on trying to transfer traditions to the new generations: "Now that our grandchildren are grown up and married, we realize the importance of celebrating in November the offering for the death ones in order to show our kids and grandchildren how the family really is and how we can get together .we gathered siblings and grandchildren around the pictures of our death ones to show them what our death ones like, which their favorite games were, their favorite clothing, and why we value their belongings so much. " I have this because it belonged to your grandfather". This way they begin to have their own memories and experiences". The effectiveness of telling kids the tales about death people lies of the fact that those tales transmit family experiences, and they become something that emotionally links the children to the family".


The evasive death


"Grandmothers are not able to tell their grandchildren incredible stories because they are only interested on television". The Day of the Deaths, like many other popular traditions, is undergoing a continuous renovation adapting to the new trends. Teacher agree on the importance of the traditional and historic meaning of the Day of the Deaths, but they worry about the way money is becoming more and more important when celebrating this tradition, because the Day of the Deaths is loosing its communal meaning , becoming a more individualistic celebration. People buy the food already prepared, as well as the other major components for the party; it's all a great business.

However the worst is that death is now becoming depersonalized since hospitals and the people responsible for the funeral parlors are taking the space of the family. Ana Maria talks about how she almost had to fight with her sister in order to avoid that their father would be reanimated at the hospital when he was dying. He had wished to die of natural death at home. The oldest and the children do no longer experience what it is to suffer and to say good bye: "when someone dies in a family it is like if there was a conspiracy to avoid them from any suffering, from the reality of life".




Even thought we could have considered a higher number of tales and stories in order to obtain a greater amount of opinions for our study, we thought that we had enough arguments to understand the nature of the diversity of views regarding death among teachers. We clearly could observe how traditions remained as a result of the cultural influence in contraposition with their academic background as nurses.

That death is not seen an illness that needs a treatment could be related to the informants that participated on the study, who were people related to health care and thus, were more sensitive to the traditional discourse about death. We should also take into account that the sample was carried on the days before the Day of the Deaths. In any case, there were no references to the traditional costumes of the Day of the Deaths (street calacas, institutional offerings), which reflects the transcendental significance of death for these teachers.

It was interesting to note how the discourse of the teachers revealed a traditional cultural identity typically Mexican (we do it this way, because that is how we are) against foreign influences such as the north American Halloween. There is thus a great contradiction: on the one side the traditions related to death are seen as a mixture of the pre-Hispanic, colonial and catholic influence and the variety of cultural expressions on each of the regions of the country are commonly accepted. However on the other side there is a great resistance to the "gringo" cultural influence. They can accept anything but the influence of the capitalist neighbor.

From an animist point of view, the rituals and traditions around the issue of death have a very strong and important meaning, either when they are individual representations (the soul abandons the death body to continue living) or collective ones (the returning of the souls to the world of the living). On their personal life and independently of what they teach their pupils, teachers follow the tradition when it comes to commemorate their deceased. The death "without souls" point of view of the medicine emphasizes the management of the feelings of the living ones towards the deceased, and the final conclusion it's the inhumation of the body. From the traditional point of view, the relationship between the living ones and the deceased it's based on memories. Therefore, the traditional rituals around death, whether individual or communal, real or symbolic, aim to keep alive the memories of the death ones, commemorating their habits, their photos, their personal belongings, etc.

Its interesting to see how concerned the teachers are on passing on the traditional conceptions of death through strategies such as family or communal celebrations, private actions (offerings, family altars) or public ones (pantheon). Collective spaces favor the transmission of knowledge and stories that remain generation to generation. Kids play an important role in this process of transmission of traditions since they participate on the rituals of death (again, real and symbolic), as a way to get familiar with death. At the institutional level, children are usually separated from death.

Finally, we could conclude this paper arguing that Mexican teachers manage to conciliate the biologic understanding of death learnt at nursing school, with the traditional ways of celebrating death at the family and social sphere. It's a very clear example of the possibility to combine traditions and scientific knowledge. The way teachers internalize their feelings towards death establishes these teachers over the reductionism of the biomedical model and certain traditional rituals that have lost their cultural referent. The result it's a very integrating knowledge, culturally compatible and socially useful, that these teachers pass on to their nurse pupils.




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To Martha Blanca Copca Garibay, Edda Alatorre Wynter, Adriana Silvia Guerrero de León, Denis Sánchez, Amanda Orozco Tagle, Teresa Candelaria Quezada Gudiño, María del Pilar Sosa Rosas, Ana María Occelli González, Sofía Rodríguez Jiménez