Photo courtesy of Molly Lichten
Photo courtesy of Molly Lichten

It’s a party! And you are invited, along with your friends, family, and dead ancestors. Before you imagine a morbid and gruesome scenario, know that Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is simultaneously a celebration of life and death that may even dare to mock and poke fun at it. It is celebrated in Mexico, other Latin American countries, and the United States on November 1 and November 2. 

Death is feared, revered, and/or respected in all cultures. Halloween is about the macabre, spooky, and gruesome. All Saints or Souls Day, a catholic festival, is a day of prayer for the dead. The Qingming (Pure Brightness) festival in China is a day of commemorating the ancestors. Día de los Muertos is a celebration of the cycle of life and death — a tradition of creating living memory of those that have departed and welcoming the return of their spirits each year. It is a tradition of storytelling through remembrance.

There were many pre-Columbian civilizations that flourished in this region, and all of them believed in an afterlife. However, the Aztecs in particular believed in the continuity of life, viewing death as merely another state of existence. They also believed in celebrating death rather than mourning it.calavera dia de los muertos

The most recognized symbols of the Día de los Muertos are calacas and calaveras (skeletons and skulls). These are caricatures that are whimsical, tongue-in-cheek, and mischievous. The most famous is the “Calavera Catrina” depiction by nineteenth century artist José Guadalupe Posada, which shows a wealthy woman mocking everyone for treating material life too seriously. The most common symbols are the colorfully decorated sugar treats in the shape of masks and skulls. Also popular are the perforated tissue paper (papal picado) decorations depicting skulls.

The annual remembering is at a personal, familial, and community level. Decorated altars (oferadas) are the most important symbols since the items placed on them tell stories about the departed relatives. Each altar is a unique offering and is created in the honor of the deceased. The decorations may include religious symbols (crosses, images and statues of saints), water (sacred in pre-Columbian cultures and a symbol of new life in the Catholic church), salt (a preservative and a symbol of purity), incense (copal, an Aztec legacy), candles (light to guide the spirits), and flowers, particularly marigolds (Cempazúchitl, or flower of the dead — sacred to Mictlantecuhtil, the Aztec god of the dead). Also included are file4351257729464toys for children, cigarettes and alcohol for adults, and memorabilia such as photographs and personal items. The most common food offering is sweet egg bread shaped like a skull (pan de muerto, bread of the dead). Processions with decorated altars lead to gatherings in the graveyard to tell stories and evoke memories of the dead.

Through storytelling and remembering, the celebration not only symbolizes respect for ancestors, but it also highlights familial connections and fellowship within the community. It creates a platform for healing by celebrating death and its inevitability.


Andrade, Mary J. Day of the Dead, a Passion for Life: Día De Los Muertos, Pasión Por La Vida. San Jose, CA: La Oferta Pub., 2007. Print.

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