El Día de los Muertos

El Día de los Muertos

El Día de los Muertos is a celebration dedicated to honoring the dead and their spirits that have passed on to another life.   As Ray Hill observed, “no place on Earth do the dead receive such a warm and festive welcome from the living than during the observance of El Día de los Muertos.”

El Día de los Muertos was originally celebrated by the Aztecs and the Mayan culture, but was adapted by the Catholic Spaniards when they arrived to conquer the Aztecs. Amazed and bewildered by the ritual, the Spaniards originally tried to eradicate it. But the celebration couldn’t be stopped. “Unlike the Spaniards, who viewed death as the end of life, the natives viewed it as the continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake.” (9)  Though El Día de los Muertos started as a purely Aztec holiday, it has found its way into Catholicism and is now celebrated widely throughout Europe and North America as well as Mexico and Latin America.

During the celebration, not only do people honor their loved ones who have passed on, but the spirits of the deceased are known to be present during the celebration. It is a time where the souls of the living and the souls of the dead can coexist in harmony. El Día de los Muertos is about remembering and treasuring the memories that we share with our loved ones who have passed, and cherishing the love we still have for them. As observed by one person receiving grief support, “when you remember all that you loved about someone, they are always with you.”

The celebration is fairly uniform throughout the different countries that celebrate El Día de los Muertos. People visit the grave sites of their loved ones, adorning them with food, flowers, and trinkets of all kinds. Celebrations filled with dancing, singing, eating, and rejoicing happen in the towns and cities that honor El Día de los Muertos as the most celebrated and nationalized holiday throughout Mexico.

Ofrendas are made for the souls of the loved ones who have passed on. Though each altar is unique to each person, the premise is to honor the loved ones and welcome them back to this earth. Ofrendas contain many different items…

  • Pictures of the loved one who the altar is dedicated to are placed around the table. Mostly, a main picture is placed as a sort of “centerpiece” to the Ofrenda.(11)
  • Pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, is a traditional food that is placed on most altars. The essence of the bread is said to be eaten by the souls of the dead who return during El Día de los Muertos. Other traditional food items, such as Tamales and Mole, are set out as well. Favorite foods of the dead can also be displayed in order to personalize the altars. (11)
  • Calacas, or skeletons, are placed around the tables as well. These are said to let people in our world see and hold something tangible that can hold the spirit of each loved one. Skulls have been a huge symbol of death and then rebirth for the Meso-Americans and were used to honor the dead during this ritual. Sugar skulls are also a huge part of El Día de los Muertos. They are decorated by children and adults alike, and are set out around the altars and homes of the loved ones. Sugar skulls, though the thought of skulls may seem undesirable, are meant to be decorated in bright colors and symbolize the happiness of this holiday. (9)
  • Marigolds are an incredibly important part of El Día de los Muertos, especially yellow marigolds. This specific type of flower is known as the sacred flower of the dead. They are hung on crosses and giant arches that are meant to welcome souls home. They are placed around altars and graves, as well as pathways through cemeteries. (4,11)
  • Candles are another major part of El Día de los Muertos. They are placed around not only the Altars but the graves of loved ones, houses, streets, and entire towns in order to light the path back home for the spirits. Certain colors have significance, especially purple, which symbolizes mourning, and also white and pink which symbolize hope and celebration.  In contemporary time, colors may reflect the favorite colors of loved ones or any colors that suit the families. (6)
  • Grooming items, such as soaps and towels, are put on the altar. It is believed that because the dead have been traveling a long way to arrive back home, they would like to freshen up. (11)
  • Strong fragrances are also laid out for the dead along with the traditional incense of copal.  Both are supposed to guide the dead to the altar and back home.  Copal was regarded by the Mayans as extremely sacred, and has been a traditional form of incense throughout Aztec and Mexican culture. (7)

El Día de los Muertos is an amazing celebration that has made its way out of just Mayan culture and into the traditions and cultures of people around the world.  The holiday lets people remember those they have lost in a happy and cheerful way, and lets people celebrate and honor the lives of their loved ones. El Día de los Muertos isn’t just a holiday, but a way to cherish everything their loved ones once loved and commemorate the memories they hold dear.

We hope you can join us for our El Día de los Muertos celebration on November 2nd!


  1. http://elcentro.unm.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/altar.jpg
  2. http://www.varley.net/images%20-%202007/Altar%202%20-%20Day%20of%20the%20Dead%20-%20Hollywood%20Forever.jpg
  3. http://www.mingei.org/sites/default/files/Day-of-the-Dead-Altar-2010_1.jpg
  4. http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2011/11/dia-de-los-muertos-day-of-the-dead/
  5. http://www.mexicansugarskull.com/support/dodhistory.html
  6. http://www.oaxacainfo.com/oaxaca/stories-210.htm
  7. http://azarius.net/smartshop/fun_stuff/incense/incense_peruvian_copal/
  8. http://www.rwongphoto.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/dia-de-los-muertos-altar_blog.jpg
  9. http://www.azcentral.com/ent/dead/articles/dead-history.html
  10. http://people.tribe.net/arcangel/photos/b0e33b88-2001-4ff8-8e6a-caf103494ea0 
  11. http://www.azcentral.com/ent/dead/altar/

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