Death has been widely respected and celebrated, rather than feared, by the people of Mexico since pre-Columbian times — as the center of Mexican folk religion, Our Lady of Holy Death, or Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte, is an example of this reverence.
Worship of the figure combines elements of the ancient Aztec religion and Catholicism. Religious syncretism, the blending of two or more religions to create a new system, is common in Latin American countries. This is because people are attempting to preserve the religious traditions of their indigenous ancestors while staying true to the Catholic faith they were raised to follow. Followers of La Santa Muerte have become more open about their beliefs in the 21st century. The figure is now not only prominent in Mexico, but in parts of the U.S. and Central America as well.
La Santa Muerte is a female deity visualized as a skeletal figure in a long robe holding a scythe — the classic image of death. She is seen as merciful and forgiving by groups of outcasts including drug dealers, sex workers and the LGBTQ community. The number of devotees has grown because of the sense of inclusion some followers say other religions lack.
Though it provides a safe space for outsiders, the cult — a term used by many of its followers — has received backlash, especially from the Catholic Church, which sees it as wicked and satanic. Contrary to the name, the Catholic Church does not recognize La Santa Muerte as a saint.
Most followers come from a Catholic background, a predominant faith in many Latin American countries.
Joseph Semita of Guadalajara, Mexico grew up in a mainly Catholic household. He attended seminary school, which prepares students to become pastors, ministers and other religious leaders. Later in life, his family started leaning toward Crypto-Judaism, showing devotion to the Catholic faith on the outside while secretly practicing different religions.
“In my home, we did not pray [to Catholic figures] and we heavily criticized priests,” Semita said.
His grandmother was a spiritualist.
“She read tarot cards to close friends and family only,” Semita said. “She was a good woman, but had a very strange spiritual side.”
Semita first became intrigued by La Santa Muerte at age 8 when he came across a statue of her at a local market. He prayed to her in secret for two years because his family, especially his devout Catholic mother, saw believing in La Santa Muerte as intolerable. With the diminishment of the family’s own Catholic faith, they began not only to accept, but respect Semita’s beliefs.
“Our ceremonies are very open,” Semita said. “We respect everyone’s ideologies and beliefs. She is set up at an altar with flowers, tequila, bread, candies and money because this is how we believe we must tend to her.”
Rituals for La Santa Muerte can be very similar to those of Catholicism and other religions. They borrow practices such as baptism and communion. But some followers don’t like the overlap.
“I do not like these kinds of practices very much because they are almost identical imitations of other rituals and we must give La Santa her place,” Semita said.
In general, the cult of La Santa Muerte does not have any rules or regulations. They welcome people from all walks of life and do not discriminate based on sexuality, background or any other characteristic.
Semita believes La Santa Muerte is present in every religion because death is part of life. The Lady of Death is important to him because she gives her believers a way to better understand the universe and a means to communicate and connect with their ancestors.
They celebrate El Día de los Muertos as well and believe the holiday’s three-day span — Oct. 31-Nov. 2 — is the time of the year when the veil between the living and the dead is lifted.
Many devout Catholics believe worshipping La Santa Muerte is a gateway to Satanism, which is strongly opposed in the Catholic faith. They have their own recognized saints and see La Santa Muerte as a mockery of them.
Caroline Miller is a devout catholic who highly disapproves of the cult.
“La Santa Muerte is a satanic saint and when you pray to her, you are praying to devils and demons,” Miller said. “You can actually open the door to unknown things that are linked to hell.”
Miller believes that followers of the cult stay faithful to the Lady of Death because of how quickly they can get results. Sometimes, Miller said, prayer in the Catholic religion doesn’t immediately yield answers.
“But the truth lies in how strong your faith is,” Miller said.
More information can be found regarding La Santa Muerte at santamuerte.org.