The Central American tradition of Day of the Dead lets families remember lost loved ones and celebrate their life.
You might recognise the colourful costumes and skull face paint from the James Bond’s recent outing to Mexico City in Spectre. But the traditions behind Dia de los Muertos in Central America are much more than an excuse for a party.
Every year from 31st October to 2nd November, communities across Mexico and Central America celebrate Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. It’s an important time for families to remember loved ones who are no longer with them and celebrate in their memory.
An ofrenda, decorated with flowers, candles and pan de muerto
The festival comes from a mixture of ancient indigenous beliefs and the traditions of the Catholic faith, which spread across Central America along with Spanish colonies in the 1500s.
Many families in Mexico create an ofrenda, a type of altar. The ofrenda is laden with brightly-coloured decorations, food and pictures of family members who have died. Food may include small skulls made of sugar and pan de muerto, bread of the dead. This sweet bread is usually round with a cross on top and dusted with sugar.
Pan de muerto and sugar skulls, served with coffee
On the 1st or 2nd of November, everyone in the town or village will prepare for a candlelit walk to the cemetery. This is when people dress up in traditional clothes and sometimes paint their faces with the distinctive sugar skull design.
Families walking to the graveyard with candles and flowers for their loved one’s grave
Carrying candles and flowers, people walk together to the graveyard to visit the final resting places of their loved ones. They clean the tombstone and decorate with candles and flowers – often marigolds, which are bright orange in colour and closely associated with mourning in Mexican culture.
Families sit together at their loved one’s grave, share memories, leave gifts and even raise a glass in remembrance. Sometimes, a local band will play music, transforming the usually quiet cemetery into a vibrant, colourful place.
A woman visiting a loved one’s grave in Oaxaca cemetery, Mexico. Photo by Greg Willis
Nowadays, Dia de los Muertos is becoming more popular in the United States, with people from all cultural backgrounds joining in with the tradition, and incorporating Halloween customs like trick or treating and fancy dress.
But at the heart of the religious festival is the tradition of visiting a loved one again and remembering their life. Many cultures across the world have celebrations like Dia de Los Muertos – in China, Tomb Sweeping Day is a chance to pay respects to lost loved ones and in Japan, Obon combines music and dancing with remembrance.
Marigolds decorating graves in the cemetery the day after Dia de los Muertos
In the UK we don’t have a special day for the whole community to remember together. That’s why it can be so important to memorialise loved ones in a way that’s special to you – or to tell loved ones how you want to be remembered when you’re gone.
With a funeral plan, you can arrange your funeral in advance and have a say in how your family and friends remember you. Find out more about Avalon's range of flexible funeral plans.
About the author
With a Masters from the University of Bristol, Jessica Hanson has worked in the funeral sector for several years, following the latest industry trends and writing about end of life planning. Jessica has previously written as a blogger for the Huffington Post, covering topics such as death positivity, understanding grief and how funerals are changing. You can find Jessica on LinkedIn and Twitter.