“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?
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
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.)