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Día de los Muertos| The meaning behind the living tradition of the death

Updated: Oct 27, 2023

Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a holiday celebrated across Mexico, in some parts of Central and South America, and among the Hispanic-Latino communities residing abroad, especially in the U.S. The holiday is sacred and one of a kind because it is a family reunion where the spirits of our dead ancestors and loved ones are the guests of honor.

During this holiday, we believe the spirits/ souls of our loved ones who had passed return to the living world to feast, drink, dance, and enjoy what made them happy on earth.

The tradition dates back to our prehispanic origins in ancient Mesoamerica, which includes Mexico and northern Central America. Here, indigenous groups, including the Olmecs, Aztecs, Mayas, and Toltecs, used to commemorate their loved ones who had died with rituals that lasted a month and were different from the elderly and the little ones who passed.

They ‘believed that death was part of life’s journey, rather than death-ending life and that new life came from death,’ according to an article by the Smithsonian.

Día de los Muertos also has the customs of the Spanish, who conquered Mexico in the early 1500s. They continued honoring the dead with the rituals and added two Spanish holidays. Those days include ‘All Saints Day’ (Nov. 1), a day to remember children who have passed away, and ‘All Soul’s Day’ (Nov. 2), to honor adults.

The beliefs and rituals practiced by our ancestors centuries back had been passed through generations —beliefs that make us not fear death and welcome it every holiday.

We honor and welcome our loved ones by putting our ofrendas before November starts.

On October 27, we celebrated our beloved pets who had died; on October 28, we believed visitors to the ofrendas are the people who died in an accident or tragically; October 29 is dedicated to remembering those who drowned; the 30th is intended for the forgotten souls or those who do not have family to remember them, and October closes with the memory to the children who were never born and the little ones who died.

In our tradition, being close to the dead and celebrating it during this holiday is part of our culture. Since we were kids, we grew up surrounded by the dead, with family photographs of our loved ones in almost every corner of our homes.

In Mexican households, it is widespread to have extensive photographs of our abuelos ( grandparents), bisabuelos (great-grandparents), and even those who died before our grandparents were born. We grew up with their presence through portraits, even if their existence was too short. Our parents taught us to greet them and talk to them on our happy and sad days as if they were there listening.

During Día de los Muertos, Mexican families build colorful ofrendas (offerings) to welcome our deceased loved ones back to earth. Each ofrenda is different and meaningful, full of food, drinks, papel picado, and symbolic objects that our deceased loved ones liked.

Pan de muerto (dead bread) is put in the ofrendas to represent the deceased, Marigolds (cempasuchitl) flowers are arranged towards the ofrenda to welcome the dead, and candles are placed to guide the road of the spirits back to their homes, and ofrendas. The distinctive smell of burned copal or incense is another element that helps guide the souls through its peculiar aroma.

The size of the ofrendas and the amount of details on them increases with time as we have to say goodbye to our loved ones throughout the years.

While in the U.S., going to the cemeteries is not that common, in Mexico, families visit cemeteries on this holiday to clean and decorate the graves of their deceased loved ones with candles and flowers.

In some parts of western Mexico, like in Michoacan, it is a tradition that families visit the cemeteries before sunrise to spend the night there accompanying their deceased loved ones. They play and bring live music, sing, drink, and eat close to the graves until sunrise.

The image of La Catrina, the elegantly dressed skeleton that inspires us every year to dress up like her and even put makeup on to resemble her face, is another famous symbol of Dia de los Muertos, with much history behind it.

During the Aztec Empire, there was already a deity known as the Goddess of Death, Mictecacihuatl (Death’s grand lady), whose presence was prominent while commemorating those who had died.

La Catrina Garbancera, the character we know now, was created by Mexican Illustrator José Guadalupe Posada in the early 1910s to denounce classism in Mexican society, according to an article by the Modern Mexican Mercadito. Her image was used to criticize those who aspired to have high social status and deny their roots, race, heritage, and culture to follow European fashions and customs. Nowadays, we can see la Catrina during the holiday, resembling sugar skulls, sculptures, face paints, or printed on clothes. This character reminds us to ’enjoy life and embrace death’ and that regardless of race, skin color, or social status, we all will ‘end up being skulls.'

Dia de los Muertos is internationally recognized, and it was declared ‘Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ in 2003 by UNESCO, whose goal is to make the public aware of the tradition's importance and safeguard it.

The holiday is a beautiful, alive tradition whose meaning goes beyond its colors and has extended for generations. Día de los Muertos is a tradition to show respect for death, honor our ancestors and loved ones, and a way to maintain our cultural identity and heritage.

Whether you are Hispanic, Latino, or from any nationality, you are invited to adopt it, keeping in mind not to appropriate it.

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