Author’s Note: Because I have been personally struggling with the concept of death and what it means to me in my beliefs in the afterlife, I’ve been researching how other cultures perceive death. This is especially important when assisting others during cases. You never know what may come up or around while working, so awareness of other cultures and their beliefs are especially important. – Alex Matsuo (Founder and Mid Atlantic Director)
After the Halloween festivities have concluded, another celebration takes place. Growing up in San Diego and having many friends with strong Mexican roots, I’m no stranger to Día de los Muertos or in English, “Day of the Dead.” Today and tomorrow marks a two-day celebration where we remember those who have passed away, and the souls of these loved ones cross over from the Other Side and visit. November 1st is traditionally when the souls of children arrive and November 2nd is when the adult souls arrive. Traditionally, it is a happy celebration. San Diego has a large celebration in Old Town, so if you’re in that area, head down there. When I worked in the public schools in San Diego, celebrating Día de los Muertos was also an educational opportunity for my students to learn about another culture, or even dig down deeper into their own culture and family history, since about 95% of my students were from Mexico. It was during this time with my students that Día de los Muertos became a part of my life, and will continue to do so every year until I go on my own journey to the other side.
But how exactly is Día de los Muertos celebrated?
Families will traditionally build an altar dedicated to their deceased loved ones. These altars will be built weeks leading up to November 1st and November 2nd, and some will even hire companies to build elaborate altars. However elaborate or modest the altars are, they serve the same purpose of remembering the dead.
These altars are decorated with flowers (specifically marigolds), paper known as papel picado, cloth or clothing belonging to the loved ones, photos, their favorite foods and beverages, candles, incense, salt, bread known as pan du muerto, sugar skulls, fresh fruit, and more. The items on the altars are a gift to the souls after their long journey from the Other Side, so even having items such as water and toiletries on the altar is considered appreciated.
The souls that visit take in the essence of the items of the altar, taking away the smell of the flowers, and the taste and nutritional value of the food. The more elaborate and expensive the altar is, the better, since the families want nothing but the best for the souls of their loved ones. These altars are usually indoors, but there are also outdoor altars as well in public buildings, schools, museums, and libraries.
In addition to these altars, the grave sites of these loved ones are cleaned up and decorated with flowers, candles, among other items. In Mexico, it is a large celebration but it is also celebrated in other countries such as Spain, Guatemala, and Brazil.
My altar is usually rather humble with a table-cloth, photos, some fruit, candles, and my loved ones’ favorite foods.
While sugar skulls are one of the most popular parts of Día de los Muertos, the are of creating these beautiful items doesn’t stop at sugar. Celebrants will often adorn their own faces with personal designs with makeup and wear costumes.
One of the most well-known skulls is La Calavera Catrina, usually donning an elegant hat and dress that was to be a dig against the Europhile Mexican elite. She was created circa 1910 by artist Jose Guadalupe Posada. She became an icon for the Mexican Revolution at the beginning of the 20th century. It is said that she is based on Aztec legend, Mictecacihuatl, the Lady of the Dead.
Whether it’s an altar, decorating your loved one’s gravesite, or taking a moment, be sure to remember and pay your respects to those who have already made their journey to the Other Side.
- Day of the Dead makeup Examples
- Build Your Own Day of the Dead Altar
- Day of the Dead Bread Recipe
- Information on Papel Picado
- How To Make Sugar Skulls