Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead


Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead: The Day of the Dead in Mexico and Beyond
Stanley Brandes
2006, Blackwell
217 pages

STANLEY BRANDES has done a great service to anthropology in this short and colourful yet strangely comprehensive examination of the so-called cult of death in Mexico by challenging the sweeping, uncritical view of a nation at ease – indeed, on friendly terms – with the Grim Reaper. Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead explores a festival that has become emblematic of Mexico and a symbol of Mexican and Mexican-American identity, yet nonetheless suffers from such stereotyping and commercialisation that it has avoided more serious critical scrutiny. Far from the oft-repeated notion of the morbid Mexican obsessed with and unafraid of death, Brandes highlights real variation and contradiction in Mexican attitudes towards the Day of the Dead and death itself that are comparable to those found in other cultures. He writes: “… the stereotypical portrait of Mexican attitudes toward death is in fact both accurate and inaccurate: accurate in the sense that it describes at least some of the true feelings of at least a portion of the Mexican people, inaccurate in that the portrait is a one-sided exaggeration that fails to take into account the full range of emotions that every human being experiences when confronted by death” [p. 186]. Brandes explores how and why the Day of the Dead has assumed emblematic status as a symbol of Mexico and the process through which this holiday has become transformed into a marker of ethnic identity within the US. He looks at the celebration’s historical foundations and evolution, how it fuels the tourism industry and finds its way into popular culture, and how it intersects with the vibrant artisan creativity that is a distinguishing characteristic of Mexico itself. – GJ