Day of the Dead

The bus labeled “panteon” was crowded and I wasn’t exactly sure where I was going.  I didn’t need to be.  It was easy enough to follow the crowd of people carrying heaps of marigolds, as they exited the bus and proceeded up the hill to the cemetery.  It was the first of November, Dia de los Muertos – Day of the Dead.

The atmosphere inside the cemetery was busy and festive.  People were hard at work weeding, painting and decorating the graves of their loved ones.  Families sat at the grave stones having picnics.   Musicians sang and played music on guitars or violins.

Day of the Dead. Photo by Emma.


Mexico is a mix.  The majority of the people are “mestizo,” descended from both Spanish and indigenous ancestry.  Holidays reflect this blending of cultures as well.  Day of the Dead (there are actually two days – the first dedicated to deceased infants and children) aligns with the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.  But the practices reflect pre-Hispanic beliefs.

The ancient Aztecs celebrated a festival dedicated to the Goddess of the Dead.  Perhaps she is reflected in the modern day image of Catrina.  Death was not seen as something to be shunned.  Rather, it was a crossing over.  Day of the Dead is a chance for souls from both sides of the veil to come together and enjoy each other’s company.

 The Day of the Dead Altar

In addition to decorating the graves, Mexican families welcome the spirits of the dead into their homes by making altars in honor of the deceased.  An altar is usually dedicated to one person, but I’ve seen altars in Mexican homes having multiple sugar skulls labeled with the names of passed family members.

Altars typically include the following elements:

  • Candles  – Lit to welcome the spirits and light their way to the altars
  • Marigolds – Known as “flor de muertos” in Mexico, whole flowers are placed on the altar and petals are sprinkled in front of it so that the strong scent can help lead the spirits to the altar
  • Incense – Also to help lead the spirits to the altar
  • Photo – A prominently placed photo of the deceased is the centerpiece of the altar
  • Sugar Skulls – Skulls made out of sugar are ubiquitous during Day of the Dead.  It is also common to put small figurines of things the person liked (sometimes, but necessarily made of sugar) on the altar
  • Water – A symbol of life is an element of the altars, but it may be replaced by the deceased person’s favorite liquid. Tequila is often used.  If someone ever makes an altar for me, I hope they’ll put a michelada.
  • Food – Fresh fruit, tamales, or samples of the deceased’s favorite foods.  A special bread, Pan de los Muertos, may also be included.

Day of the Dead altar. Photo by Carlos Martinez.

Nothing about Day of the Dead is considered morbid or depressing.  It is a chance to celebrate, to feel as if you are with those that have departed.

Published in Culture and People, Mexico

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Meet the Author

Seasoned traveler, avid reader, over-eater, clumsy but determined hiker and wannabe Spanish-speaker.


  1. WYNNA

    Your culture and our culture are very much the same. 🙂 Cemeteries are starting to get crowded already.

    1. Jennifer Choban Post author

      I can’t tell you how curious I am to see the Philippines. It’s interesting (and a little sad) that the culture of the colonizers leaves such a deep imprint.

  2. Michael Jon Falk

    I love the history, culture and education I find myself receiving from both of you! I’m with Jenny, the Philippines moved up on my list of places I want to visit after being introduced to Wynna, Elmer, Dana, and EJ. 🙂

  3. Louisa

    The Mexican approach to death seems so healthy. I know grief is part of the package in Mexico too, but it is not the only experience, as it tends to be in European cultures.

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