Templo Santa Muerte in Los Angeles.
Standing inside the Templo Santa Muerte in Los Angeles feels palpably scary and, admittedly, a little unnerving. The imagery strikes a darker chord than the jovial skeletons which ornament this same Hollywood neighborhood around Dia de Los Muertos. In the far corner looms the central figure of a skeleton adorned with a scythe, glittery gold robe, and beads—imagine the Grim Reaper in a drag competition. Offerings pile high at her feet, (mostly skull figurines) and stream steadily out to the entrance, alive with colorful bouquets, wreaths and flower chains. Another alter adorns the parking lot, complete with offerings of money, food, beer, books, magazines and ‘spell jars’, along with more skeletons.
Welcome to the world’s fastest growing religion, Santa Muerte. At its center stands an unlikely hero: Death herself. (Santa Muerte literally translates to “Sacred Lady Death”.) Far from the North American tendency to politely neglect our mortality, those who follow Santa Muerte believe death to be full of blessings and power—the ultimate protector.
Some of the rituals and iconography evoke images of Catholicism, but make no mistake: this is no extra-curricular bible study. The Catholic Church has stated plainly that Santa Muerte is Satanic and has no connection to Christianity, however, the religion has its roots in Spanish colonial Catholicism as well as Mesoamerican ritual. In particular, Santa Muerte is thought to be a based on Mictecacihuatl, “Lady of the Dead”, who, along with her husband, guides souls to the underworld and watches over them–Hades with a maternal instinct. Despite the church’s stance, many Catholics have a secret relationship with Santa Muerte. Unlike most religions, Santa Muerte doesn’t ask you for your exclusive affections—her doors are open to all.
Death does not discriminate. Someone who may be uncomfortable walking into a Catholic church knows they are welcome in any true temple of Santa Muerte. One reason there is a growing LGBTQ community who follow La Flaquita, The Skinny Lady as she is cheekily called.
That same accepting nature has also earned her the rap of having a shady following. Ever needed a favor you wouldn’t feel quite right asking a holy deity? At such times, many turn to Santa Muerte. People engaged in nefarious activities might pray for her protection, aware the Virgin Guadalupe wants no part in the venture. As a Mexican street vendor tells Santa Muerte expert Andrew Chestnut in his book, Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint, “She understands us because she is a battle-ax [cabrona] like us.” People can approach merciful Santa Muerte without shame. She will always come for you—in this unpredictable, chaotic world, death is one thing you can count on.
Visit Templo Santa Muerte at 4902 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90029
Kelly MacLean is a humorist, writer and host of The Tao of Comedy podcast where she tricks comedians into waxing poetic about the nature of reality. She’s a proud member of the When You Die team and hosts WYD podcast.