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Summary Article: Day of the Dead
From Encyclopedia of Death and the Human Experience

From early times to the present, Mexican culture has embodied themes of death, sacrifice, and destiny. Once a year, starting at the end of October, Mexicans celebrate death in a national fiesta known as Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). During the festival, the living invite their dead to join with the family and to share a meal and time together before they return to the land of the dead. This Mexican holiday originated with Aztec festivities held in late July and early August.

In the Aztec world, death was extremely important. The destiny of a soul after death was determined by the manner of death, rather than by conduct during life. The journey to the land of the dead differed depending on whether a person died suddenly or in a particular manner, such as by drowning or by lightning. Deaths in combat or in childbirth, as well as deaths in connection with ceremonial sacrifices, were especially significant. Warriors who died in battle went to a region in the sky where they accompanied the sun god on his daily journey from dawn to noon. The sun's warrior companions took the form of hummingbirds or butterflies, symbols associated with rebirth. Individuals who became sacrifices were awarded a glorious destiny in the third heaven, and women who died in childbirth (with a “prisoner” in the womb) were considered to have died just as honorably as warriors and had a place in the heavens, accompanying the sun from midday until sunset.

Among the Aztecs, the creation of the world was made possible by sacrificial rites enacted by the gods, and human beings were obliged to return the favor. Sacrificial victims in Aztec rites were termed teomicqueh, the “divine dead.” Within the divine-human covenant, they were participants in a destiny determined at the origin of the world. Through sacrifice, human beings participated in sustaining life on earth as well as in the heavens and the underworld.

When Spanish priests arrived in Mexico, they attempted, in vain, to suppress Aztec rituals for the dead. As a result, Día de los Muertos is now celebrated during the Catholic feasts of All Saints' and All Souls' Days. The Spanish contributed elements from the medieval tradition of the Feast of Fools (associated with Carnaval; carne vale, “farewell to the flesh”), where everything is open to criticism, ridicule, and mockery. This humorous tradition is part of Día de los Muertos. Thus, the fiesta combines ancient rituals and customs with features of introduced Catholic traditions. In many parts of Mexico and the southwestern United States, it is a popular holiday with observances of cultural and social importance.

Features of the Modern Fiesta

Día de los Muertos is a special occasion for communion between the living and the dead. The rituals, food, and objects, as well as particular practices of remembering the dead, vary throughout Mexico. During late October, the markets of the villages and towns are filled with special handmade items for the fiesta. In fact, some of the most interesting cosas de muertos (things of the dead) are designed to be eaten by the living. Bread in the shape of human bones, sugar-candy skulls, and cardboard coffins poke fun at death. Pulling on a string at the end of a cardboard coffin will open the top and pull up a skull-shaped muerto (dead one) to a sitting position. People from all walks of life are portrayed as calaveras (bones or skeletons.) The professor and the pilot are constructed of papier-mâché in the form of skeletons. In the marketplace, there are 3-foottall candles for lighting the gravesite and cempaszuchitl (marigold-like flowers) whose petals traditionally are strewn to guide the dead on the path to the family home.

Pan de muerto (bread of the dead) is an essential food for the fiesta. It is generally made from a light, sweet yeast batter and baked into a characteristic shape depending upon the region of the country. For example, the pan de muerto typical of Mexico City is a round loaf topped by a stylized skull and crossbones. In some places the round loaf is topped with dough in the shape of bones.

The tradition of the calavera as a central icon for the celebration of Día de los Muertos is thought to echo the Aztec skulls elaborately decorated for use as masks or offerings. The sugar skull is a form of calavera that is widely available in the marketplace. Made of sugar and water and decorated with reflective eyes and facial markings made of icing, the sugar skull has a place on the top for your name. In eating your own skull, the thought is that you become a compadre (companion) of death rather than its adversary. Sugar is also used to construct various animals who will accompany the dead on their journey to and from Mictlan, the place of the dead.

The calaveras sculpted in sugar, clay, or papiermâché or created from elaborate paper cuttings are used as a reminder that all of us will, one day, become dead ones. Under each person's skin are those bones, and the calaveras send a message that we need to recognize that fact and become accustomed to the idea that we will die.

The tall candles used in the festival are placed on both the ofrenda (altar) and the grave. It is believed that the spirits of the dead need light to find their way back to the living on their journey to join us. In some communities, the quantity of candles signifies the number of dead ones who are being welcomed home.

As a part of the festival, the families go to the cemetery to prepare for the return of their dead. There are generally few, if any, caretakers in the graveyards of Mexico. The rituals of cleaning graves, repainting crosses, pulling weeds, redecorating stones, and decorating with flowers is both a rejuvenation of the gravesite and a display of welcome for the dead. Even in the “perpetual care” cemeteries of the United States where Día de los Muertos is celebrated, families will gather at graves to clean and decorate them in anticipation of their dead one's return. A party-like atmosphere occurs in the graveyards with families, including children, visiting with each other and their dead loved ones. At night during the fiesta, in Xoxo, Oaxaca, the small cemetery is ablaze with lights from tall candles placed around the graves. A mariachi band circulates, playing tunes for the living and the dead while vendors sell food and drink.

During the festival, families build an ofrenda in the home. The placement, size, and materials used to construct the altar for the dead vary throughout Mexico. In general, an altar is covered with a cloth, although other coverings might be used depending on the region. Pictures of the deceased, and sacred images such as pictures of Mary, Jesus, or other saints (e.g., the Virgin de Guadalupe) are placed on the altar. Food for the ofrenda might include a labor-intensive dish of chicken mole—a spicy sauce of some 50 ingredients including chili peppers, peanuts, and chocolate—or other dishes that were favorites of the deceased. Items familiar to deceased loved ones, such as a package of a particular brand of cigarettes or a bottle of mescal, are set out to entice their spirits to return to the family during the fiesta.

When the ofrenda is complete, on the appropriate day determined by tradition, the dead are called home to be with the living. In some places, families set off rockets or large firecrackers to announce to the dead that it is time to come. In some communities, the dead will join the living in a meal, although only the dead may eat from the ofrenda. Children are warned that the sweets, bread, and delicious offerings are first given to the dead. The living will eventually eat them but only after much of their essence and flavor has been consumed by the dead.

Traditionally Día de los Muertos begins at midday on October 31, as bells toll to mark the return of dead children—angelitos (little angels)—whose purity of heart is said to make them effective in mediating between the world of the living and the realm of the supernatural. Such purity of heart is thought to be especially true of children under the age of 4. The next day, families gather at the church. Bells are again rung at noon to signify the departure of the “small defunct ones” (children) and the return of the “big defunct ones” (adults). Among the most traditional observances of the fiesta are those held in the Zapotec villages in the Valley of Oaxaca (such as Xoxo) and on the Island of Janitzio in Michoacán.

The celebration reaches its peak on the evening of November 1 and into the next morning, when thousands file into the small candle-illuminated graveyards carrying tamales, pumpkin marmalade, chicken mole, and pan de muerto. People sit on the graves and eat in the company of the dead ones. They bring guitars and violins and sing songs. There are concession stands where food for visitors is sold. The celebration goes on all night long. It is a happy occasion—a fiesta, not a time of mourning.

Significance of the Fiesta

In his study of Mexican identity, The Labyrinth of Solitude, poet and essayist Octavio Paz observes that Día de los Muertos is a time for revolting against ordinary modes of thought and action; the celebration reunites contradictory elements and principles, bringing about a renewal of life. The rituals honoring and remembering the dead not only connect members of the community, they also reinforce the belief that death is a transitional phase in which individuals continue to exist in a different plane while maintaining an important relationship with the living. Celebrants challenge the boundaries that ordinarily separate the dead from the living. The souls of the dead reassure the living of their continued protection, and the living reassure the dead that they will remember and nurture them in their daily lives. It is important that families pay their respects to the dead, but mourners are cautioned against shedding too many tears; excessive grief may make the pathway traveled by the dead slippery, burdening them with a tortuous journey as they return to the world of the living for this special celebration.

In Mexican culture, people often confront death with humorous sarcasm. Death is cast as an equalizer that not even the wealthiest or most privileged can escape. The emotional response to death is characterized by impatience, disdain, or irony. The skeleton has been called “Mexico's national totem.” The popular engravings of Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada resemble the medieval danse macabre, in which people from all walks of life dance with their own skeletons.

The somber mood of Hans Holbein's depiction of Die Totentanz, or Dance of Death, contrasts with the treatment of the same theme by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada. In Holbein's medieval woodblock print, The Child, we see the anxiety of family members as the skeletal figure of death ominously takes a child; in Posada's print, there is a sense of gaiety and festivity. Although expressed differently, the two works convey a common message: Death comes to people in all walks of life; no one is exempt.

Source: © Lynne Ann DeSpelder and Albert Lee Strickland from The Last Dance: Encountering Death and Dying, 8th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009. Reprinted with permission.

A striking awareness of death is displayed in graffiti and ornaments that decorate cars and buses. Newspapers revel in accounts of violent deaths, and obituaries are framed with conspicuous black borders. The suffering Savior is portrayed with bloody vividness. Mexican poetry is filled with similes comparing life's fragility to a dream, a flower, a river, or a passing breeze. Death is described as awakening from a dream-like existence.

Commenting on how these themes are displayed in modern-day Mexico, Paz says that death defines life. Death, like life, is not transferable. Folk sayings confirm this connection between death and identity: Tell me how you die and I will tell you who you are. Although a heightened awareness of death is part of everyday life in Mexican culture, it is given special emphasis during Día de los Muertos, as people gather to commemorate enduring ties between the living and the dead.

See also

Ancestor Veneration, Japanese, Dance of Death (Danse Macabre)

Further Readings
  • Andrade, M. J. (1999). Día de Muertos en Mexico: A través de los ojos del alma: Michoacán [Day of the Dead: Through the eyes of the soul: Michoacán] (2nd ed.). San Jose, CA: La Oferta.
  • Andrade, M. J. (1999). Día de Muertos en Mexico: A través de los ojos del alma: Oaxaca [Day of the Dead: Through the eyes of the soul: Oaxaca]. San Jose, CA: La Oferta.
  • Andrade, M. J. (2000). Día de Muertos en Mexico: A través de los ojos del alma: Mexico City, Mixquic, and Morelos [Day of the Dead: Through the eyes of the soul: Mexico City, Mixquic, and Morelos]. San Jose, CA: La Oferta.
  • Carmichael, E., & Sayer, C. (1991). The skeleton at the feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico. London: British Museum Press.
  • Garciagodoy, J. (1998). Digging the Days of the Dead: A reading of Mexico's Días de Muertos. Niwot: University Press of Colorado.
  • González, R. J. (2005). El corazón de la muerte: Altars and offerings for Days of the Dead. Berkeley, CA: Heyday.
  • Greenleigh, J., & Beimler, R. R. (1991). The Days of the Dead: Mexico's festival of communion with the departed. San Francisco: HarperCollins.
  • Lomnitz, C. (2005). Death and the idea of Mexico. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • DeSpelder, Lynne Ann
    Strickland, Albert Lee
    Copyright © 2009 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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