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Dia de los Muertos

“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned…. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” ~ Romans 5:12 & 6:23

While it was once believed that spirits of the dead roamed the earth on the night of Halloween, the day after that is another holiday having to do with death. Dia de los Muertos, “Day of the Dead,” is a traditional Mexican holiday when families recognize death as part of the cycle of life. The annual festivities associated with the Day of the Dead provide a special opportunity for the living to show respect for their departed ancestors, grandparents, parents and other loved ones.

Many Americans think the Day of the Dead is macabre or related to Halloween, but it really isn’t. The Day of the Dead is light and upbeat in tone, not scary. It is not a morbid occasion, but rather a festive celebration. It is not a sad or mournful time, but instead a time of remembering and rejoicing. It actually promotes a healthy view of death, which Americans usually find difficult.

The custom of celebrating Dias de los Muertos originated from the Aztec Indians of Mexico. The Aztecs believed in an afterlife where the spirits of their dead would return as hummingbirds and butterflies. Images carved in ancient Aztec monuments illustrate this belief in the link between human spirits and the Monarch butterfly.

Every autumn, Monarch butterflies which have spent the summer up north in the United States and Canada, migrate to Mexico for the winter protection of the Oyamel fir trees. Local inhabitants welcome back the returning butterflies each year, believing that they bear the spirits of their departed. These spirits are honored during Dias de los Muertos.

The ancient Aztec beliefs and rituals merged with Spanish and European religion and traditions after the Spanish conquered Mexico in 1521. Day of the Dead festivities coincide with the pagan practice of Halloween (October 31) as well as the Catholic holy day All Souls Day (November 2). The Day of the Dead is celebrated between noon on October 31 and November 2. During this time, the spirits of the dead are expected to return to their homes, visit loved ones, feast on their favorite foods, and listen to their favorite music.

In anticipation of the honored guests, families travel to the cemetery where cleaning and decorating preparations take place following a morning mass at church. They carry hoes, picks and shovels. They also bring flowers (both natural and artificial), candles, blankets, picnic baskets, and guitars or radios for listening to music. The gravesites are weeded, the dirt is raked smooth, and flowers are planted. The gravestones are scrubbed clean. Bread, fruit, candles, and colorful artificial flowers are placed on the graves. Families have picnics at the gravesites. Some families spend all day and even the entire night in the cemetery.

Different localities have their own way of celebrating the Day of the Dead. In old Mexico, townspeople dress up as ghouls, ghosts, mummies, and skeletons. They parade through town carrying an open coffin. The “corpse” within smiles as it is carried through the narrow streets of town. The local vendors toss oranges inside as the procession makes its way past their markets. Lucky “corpses” can also catch flowers, fruits, and candies.

Skulls and skeletons are a popular theme at this time, especially edible chocolate skulls and white chocolate skeletons. Handmade skeleton figurines, called “calacas,” usually show an active and joyful afterlife. They may be figures of musicians, horseback riders, even skeletal brides in white gowns marching down the aisles with their boney grooms. Special round loaves of bread called “pan de muertos” (Bread of the Dead) are baked and decorated with “bones” or sugar skulls.

At home, family members honor their departed loved ones with “ofrendas,” which consist of both familiar and symbolic offerings placed on uniquely created altars. These offerings may include: photographs, religious pictures, bread, tamales, fruit, candy, sugar skulls, toys, yellow marigolds and other flowers, a glass of water, candles, incense, cut tissue-paper decorations, and personal mementos. Cigarettes and tequila are also offered to the returning souls if these things were enjoyed during their life.

The candles placed on the ofrendas serve to light and guide the souls’ way to the altars. “Angelitos,” the spirits of infants and children, are anticipated to arrive just before dawn on November 1st, following a path of marigolds home. They stay for several hours, but then they must leave before the adult souls arrive. It is believed that both the adults’ and children’s spirits will go away weeping if nothing is offered to them.

Modern Mexican families usually observe the Day of the Dead with a special family supper on November 2nd featuring “Pan de Muerto.” It is considered good luck to be the one who bites into a plastic toy skeleton hidden inside the loaf. The deceased relatives’ favorite foods are also prepared. Some households will even set extra places at the dinner table for their dead family members. Food is offered until dawn, and gifts of sugar skeletons and similar items are exchanged. Incense is burned and prayers to the dead family members are said at the altars. In the late afternoon special candles are lit, which burn all night.

On November 3rd, in some places mummers run around town wearing masks to chase the stubborn souls back to the land of the dead. To mark the departure of the spirits, family members and friends participate in the ritual of blowing out and removing the candles from the altars. Then the altars and decorations are taken down.

The Day of the Dead is a time to be with loved ones again, not physically, but in spirit. It brings about greater reverence for the memories of those who are gone. At the same time, it lends deeper meaning to the life of the living. It is a day we realize we are all going to die. But for now, life must go on. So we can use this day not only to honor the dead, but to acknowledge and celebrate those we love who are still living.

Talking to Children About Death

Every child will be exposed to death sooner or later, either through the loss of a pet, neighbor, friend or relative. Parents need to support their children and guide them through this difficult time, while explaining reality in simple terms that a child can understand. Children have special concerns that must be addressed. Otherwise, they will make up their own answers to the questions that arise in their minds about death. Sometimes their interpretations can be much more frightening than the truth. For example, they may fear that the dead still feel pain, are scared of the dark, are lonely or cold, or that someone’s death is in some way their fault. In addition, young children may not understand that death is permanent. It must be gently reinforced that the one who died will not return. Sometimes children make a natural association from the dead person to their parent and ask if the parent is going to die, too. It is important for the parent not to deny the fact of dying, but to suggest that it is unlikely for now. An answer such as “Well, I take care of myself and I hope to live for a good long time” will suffice.

In our American culture we spend a lot of time, money, and effort in an attempt to deny – and defy – death. But in so doing, we only make death harder to accept. When you think about it, there isn’t much sense in that, given death’s inevitability.  The Bible says that death entered into the world through sin and the sentence of death was consequently passed on to everyone. So you might say that death is a natural part of human existence, and we just have to “live” with it for now. For the believer, however, physical death means the spirit is only absent from the body. The Apostle Paul tells us in the Bible passage of Philippians 1:23 that he considers it far better to be absent from this world with all of its problems and be present with the Lord. (See also 2 Corinthians 5:8.) The Bible also states in Revelation 21:4 that death will eventually be done away with in the end. There will be no more death when Jesus finally establishes His kingdom on the earth once again. He will also abolish all sorrow and suffering. This is the hope that every Christian rests in.

While we all begin to die from the minute we are born, the Bible says that believers need not fear physical death but we must do our best to make the most of our lives while we can. The Day of the Dead can help children and adults alike to understand death, to be not so afraid of it, and to begin a lifelong process of preparing for it. The Day of the Dead can also be a good time to remember, in a positive and loving way, those who have gone before us. A deliberate attempt at keeping memories alive can help us to recognize the character and worth of family members. It can reinforce the fact that almost everyone who lives has something of value to leave behind: it may be as simple as Grandpa’s way of telling stories, or Aunt Annie’s recipe for gravy. This carrying on of small parts of people’s lives creates a sense of continuity that never dies. It brings us warmth and comfort, as well as appreciation for those who are still here. Taking a closer look at death can encourage us all to realize the joy in being alive.

Your family can make a tradition of remembering departed loved ones on the Day of the Dead. Pick a quiet time-after dinner, perhaps-and let the family share memories of relatives and friends who have died. Talk about how they looked, things they said, things they did. Remember times they made you laugh and times they made you mad. Retell funny stories, recall presents you got from them or gave them. What did you do on holidays you spent with each other? Where were some places you went together? Get out some old photographs of ancestors and compare who resembles them today. Rather than mourning the fact that certain people are gone, celebrate the contributions they made to your world. Are there ways that you can see their influence in your daily life? If so, can you feel that some part of them keeps living?

Additional Activities

There can be comfort in going to “visit” someone you’ve lost, in having a consistent place where you can “talk” to them. If someone you loved is buried nearby, consider visiting them on the Day of the Dead. Some people, children especially, are spooked by cemeteries. But cemeteries don’t have to be regarded as creepy places. Most modern cemeteries are quite peaceful and pleasant.

In towns with old cemeteries, it can be an enriching experience to walk among the graves and read the brief biographies on the grave markers. The older gravestones often tell interesting bits of human history from which we can learn about times and people gone by. Some gravestones also contain beautiful artwork. But it is humbling to note that no matter whether the markers are ornate or modest, or if the person died at one day old or 100 years of age, their fate is the same.

Write down a list of people you know who have died, and reflect upon them with prayerful thought and loving remembrance. Make a deceased person’s favorite meal and eat it in their honor. Wear a piece of jewelry the person gave to you. Plant a memorial tree in your yard. Spend time in a special place where you and your loved one used to go together. Find a resident in a nursing home with the same birthday as your grandparent who died, and send him or her a card or small gift in your grandparent’s honor.

A Day of the Dead celebration doesn’t have to be limited to deceased family members. In 2001, many people made memorial tributes for the innocent victims and heroic rescuers who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. An “altar” in this case would include American flags, toy fire trucks, plastic fire hats, police badges, ribbons of red, white, and blue, pictures or models of the World Trade Center and/or Pentagon, maps of New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., personal letters to victims’ families, a jar for collecting donations, etc.

Did You Know…?

In the Roman Catholic tradition, All Souls’ Day (November 2) is a day set aside for assisting souls in purgatory by prayers and almsgiving. Some people place lighted candles on family graves after sunset on November 2nd and pray for the souls of the deceased. All Soul’s Day is known as the Day of the Dead in France, Italy, Mexico and Central America.

Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead)


1/4 cup milk

1/4 cup (half a stick) margarine or butter, cut into 8 pieces

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 package active dry yeast

1/4 cup very warm water

2 eggs

3 cups all-purpose flour, unsifted

1/2 teaspoon anise seed

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 teaspoons sugar

Step 1. Bring milk to boil and remove from heat. Stir in margarine or butter, 1/4 cup sugar and salt.

Step 2. In large bowl, mix yeast with warm water until dissolved and let stand 5 minutes. Add the milk mixture.

Step 3. Separate the yolk and white of one egg. Add the yolk to the yeast mixture, but save the white for later. Now add flour to the yeast and egg. Blend well until dough ball is formed.

Step 4. Flour a pastry board or work surface very well and place the dough in center. Knead until smooth. Return to large bowl and cover with dish towel. Let rise in warm place for 90 minutes. Meanwhile, grease a baking sheet and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Step 5. Knead dough again on floured surface. Now divide the dough into fourths and set one fourth aside. Roll the remaining 3 pieces into “ropes.”

Step 6. On greased baking sheet, pinch 3 rope ends together and braid. Finish by pinching ends together on opposite side. Divide the remaining dough in half and form 2 “bones.” Cross and lay them atop braided loaf.

Step 7. Cover bread with dish towel and let rise for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, in a bowl, mix anise seed, cinnamon and 2 teaspoons sugar together. In another bowl, beat egg white lightly.

Step 8. When 30 minutes are up, brush top of bread with egg white and sprinkle with sugar mixture, except on cross bones. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes. Makes 8 to 10 servings.


(Colorful, informative Day of the Dead site with recipes, photos, symbolism, a timeline, and articles.)

(Day of the Dead: A Historical Perspective with artwork describes the significance of yellow marigolds, altars, incense, sugar skulls, and pan de muertos.) This page appears to be gone. If you know where it is, please contact me at

(How Mexicans celebrate Dia de Los Muertos).

(See photos of famous cemeteries and unusual grave sites in the United States and Europe, learn about the symbolism of gravestone markers, and more.)

One Response to Dia de los Muertos

  1. Rene Garza

    The History and Tradition of

    “Day of the Dead”

    By Susan Dearing

    Click on photos to enlarge

    Years of traditionThe “Day of the Dead,” or Dia de los Muertos can mean different things to the Mexican people. For many in Manzanillo, it is a very important cultural event, while for others it is a religious observance. Some, particularly young children, simply consider it a Mexican holiday, with parties, parades, and a variety of Mexican foods and confections.

    “Coronas” for the grave can be store-bought or made at homeIt seems that in the more modern Mexican cities, less emphasis is placed on the cultural and religious connotations of Dia de los Muertos. In rural areas, there is much more social and economic significance attached to this event, observed Nov. 1 (All Saint’s Day) and Nov. 2 (All Soul’s Day).

    To ensure a safe passageManzanillo, having a 450-year-old history of foreign invaders, still has deep Indian roots going back thousands of years. Many families living here and in the town’s outlying pueblos and even smaller ranchos still practice the rituals of the indigenous peoples. When a person is killed on the road, you may see a memorial such as this one, to help guide him on his final journey.

    Skulls of relatives were kept by the AztecsWhen Cortez’ conquistadors arrived in the area in 1523, they were shocked that the natives practiced a strange ritual that appeared to mock death. The Spanish viewed death as the end of life, but the native Indians viewed it as a joyous celebration of thecontinuation of life. Actual skulls of the departed were kept in the familys’ dwellings. Today, colorfulpaper maché “calaveras” (skulls), are treasured, and often have the deceased’s name written on it.

    Available at Maria Cumbe boutiqueUnfortunately, the Spanish thought the rite to be sacrilegious, and believed that the local indigenous people were barbaric. Though attempts were made to convert them to Catholicism, the Indians refused to give up their strong beliefs.

    The morning after Dia de los MuertosThe Spanish priests were able to change the date of the holiday, however, from late July-August (on the Aztec calendar) to November, so that it coincided with the Christian holiday of All Hallows Eve, which we now call Halloween. The result is that Mexicans now celebrate the day of the dead during the first two days of November, rather than at the beginning of summer. At this time Mexican families remember their dead, and equally celebrate the continuation of life.

    A typical gravesiteThe day’s activities consist of families visiting the graves of their loved ones. They will plant flowers and bushes at the gravesite, decorate it with wreaths and live bouquets of wild and greenhouse-grown flowers, and even have a picnic, where they enjoy the favorite foods of their loved ones! They bring toys for dead children and bottles of tequila to adults. Many visit the grave of a loved one with a Corona in one hand and a candle in the other!

    One-stop shoppingLast year, at one of our local, older cemeteries, they sold flowers at the entrance and asked for a donation to go in. When I asked what the “donation” was for, I was told they wanted to build a new wall and bathrooms! If you plan to stay a while, and have a picnic with “adult beverages,” I guess you’ll need the W.C. eventually. Note that there’s a “Sol” beer sign in the background, coming from a convenience store next door to the cemetery.

    An all-night vigilMany family and community members are very proud of their memorials. One woman told me all about her family’s history in Manzanillo, and of her relatives buried in the cemetery, and proudly posed in front of her mother’s grave.

    Shadowbox depicting the traditional family altarFamilies also have altars or shrines in their homes or businesses honoring relatives. Candles are usually kept burning day and night, and many times a rosary is draped around the Virgin Mary, or around a crucifix. The traditional flower is a marigold, or its relative, the chrysanthemum, called “xempasuchitl.”

    Hardened resin The incense used on the altar is “copal,” a tree resin, from the “arbol de la noche (tree of the night).” Its use dates back thousands of years to Aztec and Mayan ceremonies at the top of their pyramids. The word “copal” comes from the Spanish word “copalli,” which means incense.

    Bark from the copal treeThere are two forms of copal that are sold locally, as well as copal incense sticks. The one looks like dried tree bark. The second form is a fossilized resin that looks more like a rough-cut chunk of crystal. It’s final stage is amber, which, locally is made into jewelry. The resin type of copal comes from a ground deposit that is 1,000s of years old. It is believed that burning it helps the spirit of the departed find his way home.

    Representation of a typical altarThe altar will contain food that the deceased liked, also his or her favorite kind of drink, a candle to light his path, water for his thirst, salt for his food, something personal (that used to belong to him)–all to help him remember when he was in this world.

    Fresh candles are placed on the grave of this young childSome believe that the spirits of their loved ones return to earth this one time each year. The aroma of the flowers and the scent of the incense (which, like the spirits, can’t be seen) is absorbed by the dearly departed. After the essence, or aroma has been consumed by the dead. the spicy foods and the candy treats (that were his favorites) are eaten and given away by the living,

    Ceremonial maskWooden skull masks, called “calacas,” are donned by relatives who dance in honor of their deceased family members. Wooden skulls are also placed on altars that are dedicated to the dead. A small pueblo in Colima, Suchitlan, is famous for its hand-carved wooden masks. The one on the left is on the wall of a restaurant in Suchitlan, “Los Portales.”

    Give a gift Sugar skulls, made with the name of the deceased on the forehead, are given away as gifts, to be eaten by a relative or friend. Other skull decorations are seen everywhere, in every shape and form. Fashioned from wood, paper maché, sugar, or clay, they symbolize death and rebirth.

    Inexpensive gift itemsOther gift and altar items are available for those who haven’t the time to make them. Impromptu altars are set up on secretarys’ desks, on tables in front of and inside of businesses, and in yards. Part of the preparation for Dia de los Muertos is to set up an altar in memory of the love one.

    Various “Catrina” sculptures are given as giftsFamilies remember the departed by telling stories about them. These anecdotes are passed on for generations. (Something like in my family, when we’d sit around the fireplace on a cold winter evening and reminisce about “how grandpa tipped over the outhouse with Uncle Sam in it on Halloween night.”) Photos of the deceased are placed on the altar, as is other memorabilia.

    Remembering the deadThere is usually a procession to the cemetery, preceded or followed by prayers and a family supper. Today, in Manzanillo, there are many working people, so the festivities have to coordinate with everyone’s schedule. Many times, the family members will leave a trail of chrysanthemum petals from the gravesite to their home, so the spirit will be able to follow.

    The bread has the flavor of a sweet roll The dinner features special spicy meat dishes (such as chicken molé) that were favorites of the deceased, and a special “pan de muerto,” or bread of the dead. Inside the rounded loaf (with a cross on top), there is a plastic toy skeleton, added by the baker. It is considered good luck to get the slice with the skeleton.

    Sketch from the early 1900sJose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), was a Mexican artist and political cartoonist. He was a fierce supporter of the downtrodden, and depicted the horrors and tragedies in bold black and white. He did caricatures of the rich and political (all depicted as skeletons),

    The famous CatrinaThe wonderful illustrations he produced have delighted people for many years, and his art has become almost synonymous with Dia de los Muertos. Throughout Manzanillo, you will see skeletal figures, the most famous being Catrina, a figure in a plumed hat and dress, with a skull head. (See the photo four paragraphs above on the right.)

    Cemetery backs up to elementary schoolOther areas may celebrate this holiday a little differently than it’s done in Manzanillo, and even here there’s many variations to the theme. If you are planning on visiting Manzanillo during Dia de los Muertos, however, please stop by one of our old, but traditional cemeteries (at least the one in Santiago), and donate to their bathroom. They still don’t have it built yet, and with all the tequila and Corona bottles I saw in the cemetery today, they sure do need it!

    Note: Author Susan Dearing thanks all the Manzanillo residents who contributed to this story by explaining about a centuries-old tradition. Although I had been observing Dia de Los Muertos for over 20 years, I had no idea that it was so important to the Mexican people until I did research for this article. Also, many thanks to Rosela of Maria Cumbé boutique and Marina of Las Primaveras for their loan of the gift items represented in this article.

    For information on Manzanillo and the state of Colima, other customs, festivals and activities, order the 150 page tourist guidebook written by Susan Dearing,

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