Tag Archives: el dia de los muertos

An Evolution of El Dia de Los Muertos

It has come to my attention that there is some debate about the proper name of the events that go on in Mexico on November 2.  Apparently there is a section of the population, although I’m unclear whether that population is Mexican or of Mexican descent, that believe the name is Dia de Muertos instead of the longer El Dia de los Muertos.

It is true that language is fluid and constantly evolving and the shortening of a name is a common occurrence.  After all, in the English language, All Hallows’ Evening is now known as Halloween and bears scant resemblance to how it was originally observed.  So it seems El Dia de los Muertos is undergoing a transition as well.


For example, this year, our town that aspires to be a city, had a whole weekend of “Dia de Muertos” events in addition to the traditional altares en el jardin (alters in the center garden).  It was unprecedented!  There was a parade, just like in the James Bond movie, (well, almost) and a Catrina/Catrine best costume competition and even bikers dressed as skeletons out for an after-dark bike ride.

That’s not to say that El Dia de Los Muertos has never changed before. After the Spanish conquest, the original date for this celebration of life was changed to coincide with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Instead of obsidian disks, glass mirrors are brought to the cemetery now with the hope of catching a glimpse of departed loved ones.  Walmart now makes the pan de muerto (bread of the dead) instead of local bakers which left me without a sample of that sweet bread this year.  Sigh.  “Dia de Muertos” has become trendy and left behind the traditional El Dia de Los Muertos in many areas. Tourists flock to cemeteries to gawk at the tombs of the dead, adorned with love and cempasúchil (marigold) flower petals.

Even with all these new-fangled additions brought in locally, on November 1, known locally as El Dia de Los Angelitos, and on November 2, El Dia de los Muertos, everyone was en familia (with their families) at the panteon (cemetery).  I suppose the Civic fathers knew enough not to directly interfere with these customs and for this reason scheduled the events over the weekend instead of the high holy days.  


And for us, it was still personal and private.  We visited my husband’s grandparents’ tomb in Cerano in the morning. We visited my husband’s mother’s tomb in the afternoon.  We left flowers and pictures and talked about our memories so that they will not die the third death yet, the death that comes when there is no one left to keep them alive in their hearts.

See Also El Dia de Los Muertos, Tio Felipe, The Day of the Dead)


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Filed under Death and all its trappings, Mexican Holidays, Religion

El Dia de Los Muertos–Visible Mourning

que halloween ni que

I’ve had it up to here hearing about Mexican Halloween. It isn’t. It isn’t about dressing up, spooky stories, demons, or blood. Not Freddy Kruger, not poltergeists, not witches, warlocks or ghosts. It’s not about haunted houses, trick or treating, carved pumpkins or parades. It isn’t even about death.

It’s about life.

The celebration El Dia de Los Muertos in Mexico is the commemoration of the lives of our dearly departed and the acknowledgment of the loss the living experience with each death. Although I’ve lived in Mexico for almost 10 years, this is only the third year that I have participated in El Dia de Los Muertos events. And why is that? Because up until then, there was no one to visit at the cemetery. Three years ago, my mother-in-law was killed in an accident with a police vehicle. Two years ago, my husband’s grandmother in Cerano died at the age of 89. Now we have family to visit at the cemetery. And we do.


We clean and place flowers. We sit and remember. We laugh, and we cry. It’s more like Memorial Day in the United States. Or maybe Veteran’s day. So it’s hard for me to understand the touristy aspect that has sprung up in larger areas.

student altar

The altars that are constructed in the town center in Moroleon are typically in honor of recently deceased community members. It’s a community mourning ritual. There are altars for recently deceased students, teachers, bakers, metalworkers, shopkeepers and more. The platforms constructed outside homes in Cerano are even more personal. So what would motivate someone to go to some community of which they are not a member to gawk at this mourning ritual?

A child's crypt. Notice the toy cars and pacifier behind the glass.

A child’s crypt. Notice the toy cars and pacifier behind the glass.

El Dia de Los Angelitos, November 1, is even more personal. Altars constructed in the town center or outside homes are created in memory of children who have died–some recently, some not so recently. It’s a personal homage. It’s not for me to intrude on this public manifestation of grief. After all, it is no more or less than a visible reminder that the dead are gone but not forgotten. Families visit the graves of their “little angels” and leave flowers and toys. Brothers and sisters are made aware that there was another that remains a part of the family although no longer physically present.


The sugar skulls are personal–you don’t buy a bag. You buy one and have a name written on its forehead. The figurines are personal–the catrinas are frolicking about in death much as the deceased did in life–drinking, dancing, singing, making music, even making love. The offerings left at the grave or incorporated into the alters are personal–favorite sweets, favorite toys, favorite drinks. The home altars are personal. Each one is constructed with the deceased in mind.


Perhaps it is the fact that these personal traditions are done publically that gives the impression that it is something to gape at–like one would at the zoo or a museum. Death and loss are not hidden away here. They are accepted as a part of life, not detached from it. Is this idea such a curiosity in modern times that guided tours are needed?

pan de muerto

The rituals of El Dia de Los Muertos bring comfort to the living. The altar or ofrenda is constructed just so. The days of remembrance are sacred. But times are changing….

The school board waited until the last possible moment to authorize the day free from classes. The official calendar has November 2 listed as a school day, while November 16 is a non-school day for El Buen Fin, in some effort to compete with the US’s Black Friday. What does that teach the children about the value of tradition?

This year at the panteon (cemetery) in Moroleon there was a sign telling visitors to denunciar (report) people stealing from the graves. What do they steal? Flowers? Children’s toys? A bottle of coke? Who would take these things? For what purpose? Has it really come down to a culture that steals from the dead rather than honors their memories?

Some larger towns and cities now provide parades, contests, theatrical presentations, mass-produced foodstuff, and trinkets. Wal-mart even offers a Halloween/Day of the Dead mixed selection for your buying pleasure. This tradition that in 2003 was named as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity is now up for sale.


But for us, the ritual that is El Dia de Los Muertos remains personal. It reminds us that those that have preceded us in death remain part of our present lives. They helped shaped who we are today.  It isn’t a fascination with death.  It isn’t an obsession with death.  It’s an acknowledgment of death and a celebration of life.

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Filed under Carnival posts, Cultural Challenges, Death and all its trappings, Mexican Holidays, Religion

The Day of the Dead–El Día de los Muertos


Explaining the significance of this festival to someone who has not experienced El Día de Los Muertos is challenging. The facts are there, easy to find in Wikipedia or other “impartial” sources, but until you stand in front of an altar built for someone you know, you won’t understand.

There are actually 2 days in the festival known as El Día de Los Muertos. During these days, it is believed that the door between the living and the dead is opened for a time and the spirits of the dead come to visit those that remain behind.

November 1st is known in the area that we live in as El Día de Los Angelitos (The day of the Little Angels) and is a day to remember children that have died. As these are private, family gatherings, there is little to note except that there is typically a mass held for the deceased child (See Luctuoso) and toys are brought to the crypt or tomb and left. Special prayers are directed to La Virgen, who lost her own child, in this time of remembrance.

zapotec figure death life

A Zapotec figure representing the duality of death and life.

The more public and better-known festival is November 2, El Día de Los Muertos and its traditions have more to do with the indigenous Mexican than any supposed Catholicism influence. The prehispanic goddess Mictecacihuatl was known as the Lady of the Dead. She was honored during harvest rituals with fire and incense, images of the dead, food offerings in ceramic vessels and flowers. From these traditions comes the modern Mexican belief that souls continue to exist after death in an area similar to the Catholic Purgatory but once called Mictlan, a place of silence and rest. There the souls waited, not for reward or punishment, but for this day when they can return home to visit their loved ones.


(La Muerte) Death is still a Lady in México, now personified as La Catrina. Most Mexicans like to think that the popular image of the Catrina is ancient, but the truth is this caricature of vanity was first drawn by cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada about 100 years ago to poke fun at mestizos (mixed-blood) or indigenas (native people) that pretended to be European. Diego Rivera first used the name Catrina and helped popularize her in his mural, Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central.

suenos de una tarde

Regardless of her origin, La Catrina reigns during los días de los muertos.

face paint catrina

Another Catrina-related tradition is the writing of calaveras literarias (death poems) that poke fun at death. In these short, rhyming verses, La Muerte comes and indiscriminately passes by or takes those mentioned by name in the poem.


frida altar

An altar in honor of Frida Kahlo.

In Moroléon, deceased national and local public figures are honored with altars built in El Centro. More often, altars are built in the homes or at the panteón (cemetery).

baker altar

An altar in honor of a recently deceased local baker including pan de muerto.


The altars may include marigolds, salt, favorite foods presented in ceramic dishes, pan de muerto (a luxurious sugar bread only available during these days) tequila, candles, incense and special personal items.

flower petal art

Each item has its own special meaning and reason for inclusion.

marigold cross

Marigolds are called Flor de Muerto (Flower of the Dead) or cempasuchil (Flower of 400 lives). I imagine it came by its name due to the fact that each petal has the potential to become a future marigold plant, hence each blossom can have many future lives. The strong scent of the flower is thought to lead the spirits home. Sometimes paths of petals lead from the cemetery to the home.

traditional alter

A dirt cross is included at times to remind the living that “From dust we are and to dust we will return.” (See La Novena)

copal altar

Copal is the resinous sap of a tree and has been burned as incense since the time of the Aztecs as an offering to the gods. On the Day of the Dead altar, the scent attracts spirits, drawing them home. It is also used to cleanse the area and to ward off evil.

cantiflas altar

An altar in honor of the deceased Mexican comedian Cantiflas.

Colorful tissue paper, papel picado, is cut into intricate designs and strung to flutter over around the altar. Holydays throughout the year are marked with papal picado strung over processional routes, reminiscent of their use during prehispanic rituals.

sugar skulls

Sugar skulls and figures on sale in el Centro.

You may also find calacas and calaveras on the altars. Calacas (skeletons) are carved wooden or ceramic skeletons often presented in joyous or lewd activities. Calaveras, are sugar skulls made with the name of the dead person written in sugar icing on the forehead and eaten by a relative or friend in honor of the dead.

A crypt decorated for El Dia de los Muertos.

A crypt decorated for El Dia de los Muertos.

At the panteón (cemetery), during this two-day period, families usually clean and decorate graves with ofrendas (offerings). In our case, it meant a trip to my mother-in-law’s crypt, bringing marigolds, candles and a bottle of coke, her favorite beverage. There were hundreds of people at the cemetery, some with lonas (tarps) set up and camp chairs, others perched on buckets playing cards. The families stay long into the night beside the tombs of loved ones telling stories and remembering, weeping and laughing. Some even brought mirrors in hopes of getting a glimpse of the soul as it stops by for a visit. For this one night, the dead are not gone but brought back through the memories of those that remain.


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Filed under Death and all its trappings, Mexican Holidays