Poet Emily Dickinson fixated on it and personified it in her writing. Some religions respect it and view it as a reincarnation of the soul. For others, it’s a state of permanence that opens the door to sadness and fond memories. These are just some of the ways many have observed death and dealt with it over time. In Mexico, to cope with and reflect on death in the long-term, takes on a colorful, celebratory, and even, fiesta-like atmosphere. This ritual of celebrating something considered so solemn and empty for a lot of us predates even the Spanish arrival in Mexico and is known as “Día de los Muertos” or Day of the Dead. It is a national holiday and celebrated throughout the country from small village towns to large cities.
Originally an Aztec tradition, Day of the Dead has evolved as a marriage between Catholicism and indigenous ritual. It has its roots in the Mesoamerican belief of an afterlife with departed souls journeying to a place called El Mictlán. There, it was thought that the “lady of death”, Mictecacíhuatl, would preside and watch over the deceased souls. But, to get to that location, it was a long and complex journey that would require burying the dead with those items essential for a safe and fruitful passage. Quite often these items were objects, which were used by the deceased during his living years.
Now, in keeping with the original philosophy of an afterlife, November 1st and 2nd are set aside as dates that extend beyond a mere remembrance of loved ones, and offer families the opportunity to play “hosts” to their departed ones through processions, altar-building and the gift of offerings.
November 1st is better known as “All Saints’ Day” and is believed by many to signify the day when the souls of children return, while November 2nd is reserved for the return of adults’ souls and celebrated as “All Souls’ Day”. In both instances, loved ones prepare elaborate altars either at cemeteries or in their personal homes to “welcome them back”.
The construction of an altar can take on many forms and levels, which are then adorned with offerings for the departed. In typical Aztec tradition, it’s common to assemble an altar in three levels where one level represents the earth, another the heavens and a final one, the afterlife. Offerings are then placed upon the altar and may include personal favorites of the deceased along with sugar and chocolate skulls, tequila, a favorite dish and the common fixture of “pan de muertos” or bread of the dead, which symbolizes the bounty of the earth.
Upon completion of the altar and placement of a photo of the deceased relative, a pathway is created with marigolds or cempasúchil, known as “flower of the dead”. Through their scent, these flowers are thought to “guide” the deceased back home to visit.
And though many families maintain this tradition of altar building, several opt to partake in the larger public festivals held annually from small towns to large cities throughout Mexico. Two of the largest events are held in Oaxaca and in the State of Michoacán every year.
Though numerous celebrations occur in small and remote indigenous villages throughout the state of Oaxaca, the largest and most recognized of all takes place in Oaxaca City. There, the fiesta-like energy starts gaining momentum usually a week prior to November 1st. During that time, music, traditional food, and vibrant flowers and offerings can be found throughout the city. The festivities culminate on the night of November 1st when the main cemetery, Panteón General, established in 1777 to bury victims of a smallpox epidemic, becomes the epicenter for the merging of the living with the dead. On that night, relatives of the deceased will gather around the graves to reconnect and “share” food, drink and stories with their departed ones.
Another large festival paying homage to this annual event is held near the small colonial town of Pátzcuaro, Michoacán. Located an hour southwest of the capital city of Morelia, this town is best known for the uniquely-shaped butter-fly net boats which sport around its sizeable lake. On this same lake is where the tiny island of Janitzio is found and plays host to a large Day of the Dead event with families and others holding a candlelight vigil at the village cemetery.
One thing is certain about this traditional holiday, death is not a sign of taboo or fear in Mexico, instead, it’s a concept that’s embraced and celebrated with the full gusto of the living. In fact, it’s become so popular internationally that in 2003 UNESCO listed Día de los Muertos on its prestigious “List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”. Now, the celebrations spill into places beyond Mexico’s borders and can be found in Latin America as well as some US cities.
The following is a list of US cities honoring Day of the Dead with various events and activities.
For events in Mexico, see the following links