Día de los Muertos: A Celebration of Life and Death

Día de los Muertos: A Celebration of Life and Death

February 20, 2024

Skeletons, painted faces and lots of sweet treats. Must be Día de los Muertos – Day of the Dead!

Day of the Dead is a holiday celebrated in Mexico and some parts of Latin America that honours and commemorates death. The festivities unfold over two days in an explosion of colour and life-affirming joy. Sure, the theme is death, but the point is to demonstrate love and respect for deceased family members. It combines indigenous rituals with the Catholic Holidays of All Souls and All Saints Day. It is also believed that the spirits of the day are allowed to visit their families on October 31st and leave on November 2nd. Candles and flowers line the cemetery and streets to guide loved ones to their homes. During that time, families and friends prepare food, make altars and decorate gravestones to pay respect to the deceased. Parades are held and children eat candies to celebrate the lives once lived. There are more than one tradition and custom associated with this event!

One of the principal customs of the longstanding celebration is the construction of Altars.Built at home, the families decorate the altar themed with orange and purple colours, further piling them up with offerings like candles, flowers and personal possessions of the ones who left the earth. In many communities such as Pátzcuaro, these altars are also constructed right at the graveside of deceased. The house is thoroughly cleaned before setting up the altar for the very important ‘visitors.’

Some people misunderstand the significance of the ofrendas (offerings), as they believe ofrendas are actually set up to worship the dead. However, it is in fact to remember and honour the memory of their ancestors. The ofrenda is laid on the table, further covered with a white cloth, later papel picado is placed on top. A candle is lit for every deceased relative to guide them back home and listen to the prayers of their loved ones. On November 1 (Día de los Inocentes), deceased children are offered toys and sweets. Whereas on November 2 is for the deceased adults, therefore offerings like alcohol, cigarettes and football shirts, etc are placed as well.

Mexican Marigolds, or flowers in general, also represent the fragility of life. It is believed that the spirits of the dead visit the living during the celebration. There are many reasons that these vibrant blooms are so heavily used in the annual celebration. Marigolds guide the spirits to their altars using their vibrant colours and pungent scent. They’re also known as the ‘flower of the dead,’ despite being such a bright and cheery bloom. If you visit Mexico or heavily populated neighbourhood with people of Mexican descent during the celebration, you’ll witness marigolds spread around, not only in elaborate doorway arches and garlands, but adorning the graves of loved ones too. Some families even stock up on marigolds to decorate the ofrenda in the home, honouring their family members. Apart from that, many people even make their own marigolds for the celebration, whereas a few craft flower crowns for the occasion.

Finally, there’s the Catrina Parade! La Catrina was created by the Mexican illustrator-artist Jose Guadalupe Posada, who died in 1913 but has been an influence on many Latin American artists and cartoonists because the satirical acuteness and political engagement of his work. The Catrinas parade is an annual event commemorating the Day of the Dead by locals and visitors. La Calavera Catrina, or Dapper Skeleton, is the most representative image of the Day of the Dead, an indigenous festivity that celebrates ancestors and includes many humorous or pretty portrayals of skeletons. Even though this custom more or less only applies to Mexico City, other locations hold their own less grand version of the parade as well. Every year a number of individuals represent Catrinas through their dressings and walk down zocalo to be a part of the grand Catrina Parade. Those attending, paint their faces Catrina skull style, further highlighting their eyes and cheeks with colourful accents, with clothes most suitable and relatable for the occasion.

In his book The Labyrinth of Solitude, Mexican author Octavio Paz, who won the 1990 Nobel Prize in literature, wrote: "The Mexican is familiar with death, jokes with it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it."