Head Strong: How Day-of-the-Dead Skulls Added Life to Our Landscape — Every Day of the Year

PHOTOS BY RYAN BENOIT

Those psychedelic skulls we associate with Día de los Muertos aren’t just for November 1 and 2.

Festooned with painted birds and flowers and ranging from golf-ball-size to the width and height of an actual human cranium, ceramic calaveras represent not only death but also the constant cycle of life, decay and rebirth — the same exuberant cycle we see every day inside the garden.

Things have been heady at our place for some time now. C has worn skull jewelry for years and years (in ring form, mostly) — plus, the holographic cranium on the cover of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty was parked on our coffee table for a large chunk of 2011.

We bought our first ceramic calavera last year for a haggled song. Today it’s nestled on a westfacing slope in our garden, surrounded by sea thrift, orange gazanias and mint run amok. In recent months we’ve collected six more, sourced from one of our favorite vendors at Kobey’s Swap Meet in San Diego, CA. (That is, not including the gorgeous black skull we will soon be mailing as a gift to a special someone. So if you recently had a birthday and we know where you live, proceed with caution; there’s a spoiler at the end.)

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The Día de los Muertos wares at Kobey’s Swap Meet.

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Mint, thrift and gazanias surround our garden’s first calavera.

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Made and handpainted in Mexico, our skulls have ranged in price from $2 to $17. The smallest ones encircle candles on side tables in our house and also serve as napkin weights when we entertain outside. The medium models lend their headspace to Ryan’s tables. The largest ones mingle in our yard among flowers and spraypainted driftwood.

Clearly, a habit is forming.

You ask, Why can’t we get these skull-ptures out of our heads? Why do we choose to keep them so close to our plants, where they scare away all children but hardly any aphids? For one, the clash of textures is appealing: smooth, glossy ceramic pops against serrated leaves, and vice versa.

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On one of Ryan’s handcrafted tables, this black and white skull gets cozy with a Tillandsia bulbosa ‘Belize.’

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This black medium-large skull stands watch over our vintage Preway in the fireside garden.

We also think they’re a great alternative to the garden gnome. We’re not knocking the gnome — but we’d be lying if we said gnomes sing our heartsong the way these Day of the Dead(heads) do.

C feels closer, culturally, to calaveras, having heard all sorts of ghostly tales from her Trinidadian parents about All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days. The related Día de los Muertos is believed to have originated with the Aztecs as a way to honor mythical goddess Mictecacihuatl, queen of the underworld.

Not to wander further off the path, but — one wonders what Mictecacihuatl would have done (or did do…?) to the Disney suits who recently attempted to trademark the name of this hallowed celebration. Thankfully, the misbegotten filing was withdrawn last spring.

If you leave your skulls outside, you should note that their glaze will degrade over time. White skulls will yellow a bit — which happily and accidentally turned out to be our bag, but not necessarily everyone else’s. Also, if you buy them handmade, no two calaveras will be exactly alike: Patterns range from glittery peacocks to tropical flowers, tapered stripes to baroque swirlwork. We’re also pretty sure that each of their painted grins carries its own set of emotional baggage. Or maybe we’ve just had too much organic peyote tea. (Kidding.) One of our tomato red ornaments even has a mohawk.

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When she came for a visit last spring, C’s best friend Semra Ergun was into it too. With Sem we headed (geddit, geddit?) on a Sunday afternoon to Kobey’s Swap Meet, where Sem secured a purple and turquoise noggin the size of a human palm for $15. She shows off her spoils at the top of this page. “It’s currently on my table with my houseplants, and adds an awesome brightness to the bouquets of flowers I get from Trader Joe’s on the weekends,” Semra says.

We nod our heads yes, in agreement. —TH

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Gift idea: we paired this skull with a scarf for a memorable presentation.