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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

599 Día de Muertos celebrations address a reality that is rarely acknowledge - our own mortality

Day 599 Thursday, November 4, 2021

Día de Muertos celebrations address a reality that is rarely acknowledged by modern cultures - our own mortality.

(La Catrina participates in a parade during the Day of The Dead festival

in Guanajuato, Mexico)

Day of the Dead: How Ancient Traditions Grew Into a Global Holiday

The Day of the Dead or Día de Muertos is an ever-evolving holiday that traces its earliest roots to the Aztec people in what is now central Mexico. The Aztecs used skulls to honor the dead a millennium before the Day of the Dead celebrations emerged. Skulls, like the ones once placed on Aztec temples, remain a key symbol in a tradition that has continued for more than six centuries in the annual celebration to honor and commune with those who have passed on.

(Aztec dancers participate in a ritual dance procession for the Day of the Dead at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, in Los Angeles)

Once the Spanish conquered the Aztec empire in the 16th century, the Catholic Church moved indigenous celebrations and rituals honoring the dead throughout the year to the Catholic dates commemorating All Saints Day and All Souls Day on November 1 and 2. In what became known as Día de Muertos on November 2, the Latin American indigenous traditions and symbols to honor the dead fused with Catholic practices and notions of an afterlife. The same happened on November 1 to honor children who had died.

In these ceremonies, people build altars in their homes with ofrendas, offerings to their loved ones’ souls. Candles light photos of the deceased and items left behind. Families read letters and poems and tell anecdotes and jokes about the dead. Offerings of tamales, chiles, water, tequila and pan de muerto, a specific bread for the occasion, are lined up by bright orange or yellow cempasúchil flowers, marigolds, whose strong scent helps guide the souls home.

(Day of the Dead festivities at the the Arocutín cemetery in Michoacan state, Mexico)

Copal incense, used for ceremonies back in ancient times, is lit to draw in the spirits. Clay molded sugar skulls are painted and decorated with feathers, foil and icing, with the name of the deceased written across the foreheads. Altars include all four elements of life: water, the food for earth, the candle for fire, and for wind, papel picado, colorful tissue paper folk art with cut out designs to stream across the altar or the wall. Some families also include a Christian crucifix or an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint in the altar.

In Mexico, families clean the graves at cemeteries, preparing for their spirit to come. On the night of November 2, they take food to the cemetery to attract the spirits and to share in a community celebration. Bands perform and people dance to please the visiting souls.

(Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City)

“People are really dead when you forget about them, and if you think about them, they are alive in your mind, they are alive in your heart. When people are creating an altar, they are thinking about that person who is gone and thinking about their own mortality, to be strong, to accept it with dignity.”- Mary Andrade.

(giant skulls painted in honor of the late Mexican artist Frida Kahlo)

In the 1970s, the Chicano Movement tapped the holiday’s customs with public altars, art exhibits and processions to celebrate Mexican heritage and call out discrimination. In the 1980s,

(Ofrenda at Wal Mart in El Paso Texas to memorialize 22 victims of a racist gunman)

Day of the Dead altars were set up for victims of the AIDS epidemic, for the thousands of people who disappeared during Mexico’s drug war and for those lost in Mexico’s 1985 earthquake. In 2019, mourners set up a giant altar with ofrendas, or offerings, near a Walmart in El Paso, Texas where a gunman targeting Latinos killed 22 people.

(Day of the Dead celebrations in Santiago Sacatepéquez, Guatemala)

One reason more and more people may be taking part in Día de Muertos celebrations is that the holiday addresses a reality that is rarely acknowledged by modern cultures—our own mortality.

(Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles, California)

It creates a space for communication between the living and the dead. Where else do people have that? These altars have become a resource and connection to that world and that’s part of their popularity and their fascination.


(La Calabiuza" celebrations in Tonacatepeque, El Salvador)

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