Devoted to Death – The Development of a Skeleton Saint

Catrina Calavera

R. Andrew Chesnut, Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, and author of ‘Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint’, offers his personal observations on the development of her devotion in a fascinating photo essay hosted by Huffington Post:

“Having lived, studied and traveled in Mexico for almost 30 years, I can personally attest to the intimate and familiar nature of death in popular culture.

Long before Santa Muerte’s (Saint Death) public outing 11 years ago to the date (Nov. 1), images of death personified abounded. Most visibly, Catrina Calavera (Skeleton Dame), a high society woman depicted as a skeleton in fashionable early 20th-century attire, is omnipresent in Mexico. Created in 1913 by the great graphic artist and satirist, Jose Guadalupe Posada, La Catrina has curiously even made her way on to more than a few Santa Muerte altars. And it was no coincidence that the godmother of the cult of Saint Death, Doña Queta (Enriqueta Romero), publicly displayed her life-size statue of the Bony Lady on the first of November (All Saints Day), the first of two days of the dead, dedicated to infants and children, in which many Mexicans head to the cemeteries and, in a mix of festivity and solemnity, commune with their departed love ones. Sugar skulls bearing common first names, such as Maria and Jose, are sold in the streets, and at home, altars are erected bearing the favorite food and drink of the deceased family member. Growing up in Morelia, my wife always felt left out due the absence of candy skulls bearing her name “Fabiola.

In a similar vein, for most devotees Santa Muerte is neither grim nor satanic. Instead, she is a saint who is as familiar to Mexicans as death itself. And her familiarity is reflected in her most common nicknames: Skinny Lady, White Sister, Godmother, Co-Godmother, White Girl and Pretty Girl. As godmother and sister, the saint becomes a supernatural family member, approached with the same type of intimacy Mexicans would typically accord their relatives. Much, of course, has been written about the uniqueness of the concept of death in Mexican culture. In his illuminating book on the subject, “Death and the Idea of Mexico,” anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz even argues that death is totemic of the nation itself; that along with the Virgin of Guadalupe and 19th-century president, Benito Juarez, the figure of Catrina Calavera, the “playful skeleton.” is one of the three great totems or powerful emblems of Mexicanness.

Such familiarity with death really struck me at Doña Queta’s famous Santa Muerte shrine in Mexico City where elementary school-age children would often accompany their mothers and siblings. With the great exception of Halloween, I imagine many American kids recoiling in horror at the sight of a ghoulish skeleton with waist-length jet black hair. Even on the night of trick-or-treaters, many American children aren’t immune to the fright caused by ghouls and goblins. In fact, my father came close to losing a long-time friend when on a Halloween eve in the early 1980s he and I appeared at the door of family friends in skeleton masks and unintentionally scared the dickens out of his young daughter. Back at Doña Queta’s, her renowned statue of the Grim Reapress is met with familiar nonchalance on the part of visiting children. Perhaps even more striking was the scene at Guillermo’s esoterica shop in Morelia, where the young children of the owner played tag and kicked a soccer ball amidst hundreds of images of the skeleton, including a few eye-catching statues sculpted from volcanic rock, which at some six feet tall towered over the playful children.”

To read the full presentation, along with photos, check out – Santa Muerte: A Familiar Death

3 Comments on "Devoted to Death – The Development of a Skeleton Saint"

  1. Simiantongue | Nov 2, 2012 at 12:05 pm |

    My long term goal in life is death. I figured I’d set my sights on something inevitable, and at the same time if it turns out that I don’t achieve it I won’t be very disappointed.

    “I don’t believe in the no win scenario”- Capt James T Kirk.

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