Day of the Dead

Woman with skeleton make upWith roots in pre-Hispanic traditions, the Day of the Dead (November 1-2) has been blended with Christian customs and is a major holiday throughout Latin America. Details of how the festival is celebrated varies from country to country, region to region and even village to village. In much of southern Mexico, Day of the Dead is the most important and colorful celebration of the year.


In Oaxaca Mexico, the festival is both about remembering and about celebrating. Time is set aside to remember those who have passed on and to spend time with those who are still here. Fiestas honor the lives of the departed and remind the living to enjoy the time that we have.


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In the villages around the city of Oaxaca, families go to the cemetery to clean and decorate the graves of their loved ones. There, they welcome the departed souls who are given permission to return to visit and celebrate with the living, but just once a year for 24 hours.


As honored guests, souls of the dead are accompanied from the cemetery back to their homes where elaborate candle-lit altars, covered in flowers are set for their arrival. Made up of three divisions representing the sky, the earth and the underworld the altars are loaded with bread (pan de los Muertos), chocolate, mezcal, soda, nuts, fruit and other favorite food and especially drink because the spirits are thirsty from the long crossing from the other world. Alongside the provisions, there are photos, cigarettes, playing cards or other items that were favorites of the deceased when they were still in this world.


alter with flowersThroughout the day and well into the night, cousins, god-children, aunts, uncles and other family members stop by the home, add more flowers and food to the altar, then stay to laugh and share stories. The families eat and drink together, sharing nuts, fruit, tamales, mezcal, hot chocolate and pan de los Muertos, a special bread which is made only for this festival. In Oaxaca, the tradition is to place a small face in the bread dough. As the bread rises and bakes, the dough swells around it so that it looks like a woman´s face surrounded by a voluminous gown and veil of bread. In some villages the bread is left plain. In others they add fancy decorative icing on the “clothing” so that it looks like elaborate embroidery.


In a few villages, families hold an all-night vigil in the cemetery. Candles light up the night, and the smell of cempasuche (marigolds) act as guides to the dead to show them where they can find food, drink and their loved ones. The beautiful glow of burning candles in the night sky, the pungent smell of marigolds, the warm taste of mezcal, the lively rhythm of music played by bands and even DJs fills all the senses. Family members pass time around the tombs, telling stories, reading out loud, singing songs, dancing or playing games in the presence of their departed.


After 24 hours of visiting the dead souls are called, and often escorted back to the cemetery where they rest in peace until the Dia de Los Muertos powers permit them to return the next year. And the families of the departed return to their own world with a deeper appreciation for life.


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