In Mexican culture, death is viewed as a natural part of being human, and the Mexican holiday Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is an annual celebration when friends and relatives come together to pray for and remember those who have passed. Also called All Souls Day in the Catholic tradition, it's a time to honour loved ones who have moved on from this life and support their spiritual journeys in the next one. Those who celebrate this occasion are welcoming their loved ones for a short visit.
The holiday has roots in the culture of the Aztec Indians, who worshipped a goddess of death they believed protected their deceased loved ones and helped them in the afterlife. The ways those of Mexican heritage celebrate today vary by region and family, but the festivities are always designed to remember loved ones with bright colours, delightful smells and tastes, and the joy of lighthearted togetherness.
How to celebrate Día de Los Muertos
1. Visit the gravesite of a loved one.
Families usually make a trip to the cemetery to spruce up their loved one's memorial. They first lighten the spirit, or aligerar el espíritu, which means pulling weeds and removing debris from the area before washing the grave marker. Then they beautify the gravesite with candles, flowers (preferably marigolds, which have a smell said to attract the spirits), sugar skulls and the favourite foods of the loved one.
2. Take a picnic to the cemetery where your loved one rests.
Cook your loved one's favorite recipes and make an afternoon of eating, singing and telling stories about the people whom you miss. If Grandma liked horchata or your brother appreciated pulque, be sure to fill a thermos. If your loved one liked a drink every now and then, leave behind a shot of tequila or his favorite cerveza.
3. Bake pan de muerto.
Baking bread was all the rage in the early days of COVID-19. With those skills perfected, put them to a new test with a few loaves of the sweet, yeasty "bread of the dead."
4. Set up an altar in your home.
Ofrendas are often elaborate displays with a floral arch, colourful tissue paper banners (papel picado), lighted candles, pan de muerto, fruits, salt, painted ceramic or sugar skulls, and photos of loved ones. You can include a child's favorite toys or an adult's best-loved books or tools. They usually have multiple tiers.
5. Make your own sugar skulls.
They're easy to DIY with only a few ingredients and a plastic mold purchased from a craft store or online. Decorate the skulls with brightly colored icing. If that seems too ambitious, make iced sugar cookies shaped like skulls or stop by a Mexican market to pick some up. Display them on the altar or give them to others who knew your loved one.
6. Host a Day of the Dead feast.
Invite friends and relatives for brunch or dinner. Serve tortilla soup, tamales, chicken mole, pan de muerto and caramel flan. Decorate with pots filled with marigolds and papel picado. Propose a toast to those who have passed and ask people to share their memories.
7. Attend a Day of the Dead parade.
The biggest Día de Los Muertos parades are in Mexico, but U.S. cities with large Hispanic populations, such as ; ; ; and , also host large Day of the Dead parades with music, dancing, and lots of giant skulls and skeleton costumes.
8. Dress up as a Catrina or Catrín.
If you'll be attending a parade or hosting feast, add to the fun and get in on the action by dressing up. Search YouTube and Pinterest for ideas and instructions on clothing, face painting, floral crowns and more.
9. Make a Day of the Dead door wreath.
Use brightly coloured flowers, ribbon and leaves to craft a wreath. Place a large painted skull right in the center or embed several smaller painted skulls in the other decorations. Take it one step further and drape your whole front porch in coloured lights, garlands of flowers and papel picado.
Pixar's marvelous animated Day of the Dead film features an all-Latino principal cast and the journey of a young boy discovering his family's history. Critics and viewers alike praised it, and you're likely to fall in love, too. Invite a few people over to watch Coco with you—just be sure to have plenty of tissues handy.
Where to celebrate Día de los Muertos
At cemeteries across the United States, you will find families celebrating Día de Los Muertos. In an area with a large population of people with Mexican heritage, you may even find a large cemetery that hosts a Día de Los Muertos celebration that draws in many families to pay their respects to their loved ones, including a Dignity Memorial® provider.
Dignity Memorial professionals can also help you plan a private Día de los Muertos celebration on cemetery grounds or at an indoor facility of your choosing. Our funeral homes and cemetery providers are always available to help you personalize a celebration of life or memorial service to respect and reflect you or your loved one’s unique life.
What day is Día de los Muertos?
The Day of the Dead is November 2. Especially in Mexico, the celebration spans several days, October 31 through November 2, and is referred to as The Days of the Dead.
October 31: Halloween, or All Hallows Eve—typically the day families set up altars for their loved ones.
November 1: Día de los Inocentes, or Day of the Children, and All Saints Day—set aside to focus on children who have passed.
November 2: Día de los Muertos, or All Souls Day. Families celebrate adults who are no longer living.