November 02, 2012

Day of the Dead: A celebration of life

Day of the Dead Figure
David Linares-Vargas

At the Burke, we bring together people, objects and the stories that make them meaningful.
As Mexico and other cultures around the world celebrate Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) on November 1 and 2, we want to share some of the Day of the Dead objects in our Ethnology collection and a special new sculpture on display for our visitors to enjoy.

Day of the Dead is a time for families and communities to welcome home the visiting spirits of the deceased and celebrate the love they shared. Rather than a time for sadness and mourning, this holiday, is a celebration of life and is filled with all kinds of individual and culturally meaningful objects that remind us of the past.

Preparations for Day of the Dead often begin weeks in advance. The celebration traditionally includes dances, festivals, family gatherings and religious services. Families also place photographs of their deceased relatives on candlelit ofrendas (altars) with elaborate wreaths and crosses, prepare special foods – such as chocolate skulls and pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and lay trails of brightly-colored marigolds to help guide the spirits home.


Artists produce beautiful creations. Everything from skulls sculpted from sugar, to tissue paper flags, to intricate cartoneria – papier-mâché sculptural works made for use or sale during seasonal fiestas in Mexico. Browse the Day of the Dead objects in our online Ethnology collection.

The whimsical, life-size skeleton sculpture pictured above was made for the Day of the Dead fiesta by David Linares-Vargas, a member of a well-known Mexico City family that has made cartoneria since the 1950s. David carries on the tradition of his grandfather and father in creating elaborate cartoneria.

The sculpture was originally acquired from a Seattle gallery in the 1990s by Robert D. Wilson, a former University of Washington art history faculty member who taught about Mexican colonial and folk art. After Wilson's death in 2009, Drs. Rene and Stephanie Bravmann acquired it from his estate and donated it to the Burke Museum in Wilson's memory.

Objects like this sculpture and other Day of the Dead artifacts represent an important cultural identity and community history. We’re proud to help care for these shared resources and celebrate in their meaning.

By Cathy Britt, Digital Communications

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