On Sunday and Monday, families across Mexico, the U.S. and elsewhere are observing Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday that celebrates the lives and honors the memory of those who’ve passed on.
And each year, the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago has a special exhibition for the holiday.
But the coronavirus pandemic has made the usual programming impossible. This year, the museum is going virtual, with a Day of the Dead exhibition that pays tribute to the people in Mexico, the U.S. and around the world who have died of COVID-19.
“It was really important that we still put on this exhibition,” says Cesáreo Moreno, the museum’s chief curator and visual arts director. “Like so many other rituals in our lives, they’re more than just a marker of time or season. They give us a sense of the normal. They give us an idea of where we’re at.”
An electronic counter, updated each day, displays the number of people who have died of COVID-19. In the past, the museum has honored people who died in hurricanes and earthquakes, or those who died in the desert while attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
But memorializing an ongoing tragedy is more difficult than an event that has come and gone, Moreno tells NPR’s Michel Martin on All Things Considered.
“Right now, we don’t see the end. It’s still going. And so it’s difficult to really try to commemorate something that you are still in the middle of. So the best way we could think of symbolizing that is with the numbers.”
This is the 34th year that the museum has commemorated Día de los Muertos, also called Día de Muertos. But the roots of the holiday itself go back centuries.
“It’s a combination of two spiritual belief systems,” Moreno says. “It’s the ancient indigenous cosmology and the Spanish Catholicism that was brought over with the arrival of the Europeans. And so it’s combined together to form a very unique tradition and understanding and rituals that deal with the idea of life after death. And, of course, remembrance of those people here on Earth.”
In Mexico, Día de los Muertos can be celebrated by entire communities gathering together at cemeteries to clean and decorate graves of loved ones. There is singing, crying, drinking, eating and playing overnight until the sun rises, when people clean up and go home.
At home, people can build altars and put out ofrendas, or offerings, for those who have passed on.
“We remember them by remembering what they enjoyed while they were here on Earth,” Moreno says. “So if somebody had a specific food that they liked, you would place that out on the altar as an ofrenda. You also put their photographs out, you share stories about them, and it really becomes a time to memorialize these individuals. It’s really important that we keep saying their names, we keep telling their stories, and we pass these ideas on to the next generation.”
This year, though, like so many other celebrations, the coronavirus pandemic has thwarted the way Día de los Muertos can be celebrated. The pandemic has had an outsize impact on Latinx people in the United States, who are hospitalized from COVID-19 at four times the rate of white Americans.
Moreno says that despite the show being entirely virtual, the tours are from all over the country, which feels, in a way, that they’ve “reached a little bit further.”
“It’s not as beautiful as having children walk through the museum galleries and hearing their reactions,” he says. “But certainly it is at the heart of it, at the core of it, it is providing this idea of life and death and just sort of a celebration of life. It’s a way of understanding death as a part of life. It’s not the opposite. It’s just part of the same thing.”