Mexicans have a different relationship with death than other cultures. As the Nobel prize-winning Mexican writer Octavio Paz explained in his seminal work Labyrinth of Solitude:
“The Mexican … is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. True, there is as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: he looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony.”
On Day of the Dead, the focus isn’t on impersonal threatening spooks, it’s on celebrating with one’s family—alive and dead—and remembering those who are no longer alive. It’s on seeing death as another stage following life, not something to be faced with fear. There is the idea that the dead visit the living during this period, and that family and friends should celebrate with their dead.
Day of the Dead (Spanish: Día de Muertos) is celebrated throughout Mexico. During this period, the popular belief is that the deceased have divine permission to visit friends and relatives on earth and enjoy once again the pleasures of life. The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died, and help support their spiritual journey.
Recognized internationally, in 2008 the Día de Muertos tradition was inscribed in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
It is a public holiday in Mexico. Prior to Spanish colonization in the 16th century, the celebration took place at the beginning of summer. It was moved to October 31, November 1 and November 2 to coincide with the Western Christian traditions of All hallow tide: All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day, and the Celtic Samhain.
This is very much a family celebration. Traditions include building private altars in the home called ofrendas, honoring the deceased using sugar skulls (calaveras de azúcar, or just calaveras), marigolds (cempasúchil, or flor de muerto – flower of death), and Catrina.
Public ofrendas are now set up in local cities and villages. They start with a tiered structure to which offerings are added. Favorite foods and beverages are offered to the the departed. Family and friends will visit cemeteries and bring gifts to the deceased. They will clean up and repair the grave, then decorate it with flowers, flags (papel picado, perforated paper) and gifts. The night of November 2, Noche de Muertos, will be spent at the grave, visiting and partying with dead relatives.
The holiday can be traced to indigenous observances dating back hundreds of years and to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as the “Lady of the Dead.” She was the Queen of “mictalan” (the underworld). The roots of this celebration are even more ancient, at least 2500-3000 years old. Día de Muertos developed from ancient traditions among pre-Columbian cultures where regular rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors were held.
This is our first Day of the Dead since we moved to Mexico. We have heard it is one of the big celebrations of the year and so wanted to experience what we could of it this year. And take a lot of photos, so we can show it to you readers.
We start with a Halloween Party on October, 31. Next we visit the Ajijic Pantheon (graveyard). The next day we were at the Chapala Dia de Murtos ofrendas during the day, and San Antonio Tlayacapan Plaza celebration on November 2nd in the evening. Finally there are photos of the Chapala Municipal Cemetery taken on November 3rd, the day after Dia de Muertos.
Riberas de Pilar Halloween Party
Halloween is not traditionally a part of Day of the Dead, but in recent years it has been gaining popularity in Mexico. It fits easily into Day of the Dead, but with a Mexican twist. It is a time to party, rather than a time to be afraid.
We were invited by a friend to a local lakeside restaurant, Diego and Nicole’s, that has a special Halloween party each year.
Catrina greets us as we arrive.
Here are Carol and Richard. We didn’t have costumes, so we dressed in our India togs, and put on turbans, like were put on us when we were remarried for my 70th birthday (See that amazing ceremony here. It is worth reading and seeing how other cultures treat their old people.).
One of the woman at our table, Stephanie. I don’t know where she got that great mask.
Spiders were hung from the ceiling with care, in hopes that Halloween soon would be here.
One way that Mexican Halloween is different is rather than spooks and ghosts, the most common costume is Catrina, who has become the Mexican symbol for a happy death. I wrote about Catrina in this post: Who is La Catrina?
So this little girl is wearing Catrina makeup. And wears Flowers of Death in her hair.
Here is our hostess for the evening the owner of the restaurant, wearing her own Catrina makeup and marigolds. Sitting in front of the restaurant owner is our friend Clare.
A pirate mask and another Catrina.
Now here is a witch and her baby. A more usual Halloween costume. Great witch’s nose. (Why are witches shown as old crones, why not pretty young girls?)
Blending of two cultures, skeleton suit and face.
This time the man has the skeleton face. If it is a woman is is Catrina. I have not heard such a name for a male face. Does anyone know? I notice the Devil head plaque on the wall.
On the back fence are posters of, you guessed it, Catrina!
There is a graveyard, too. They went all-out in decorating for tonight.
Watch out! It looks like someone is escaping their grave.
Ajijic Graveyard, Panteon De Ajijic
People go to cemeteries to be with the souls of their loved ones and build private altars containing the favorite foods and beverages, as well as photos and memorabilia, of the departed. The intent is to encourage visits by the souls, so the souls will hear the prayers and the comments of the living directed to them. Celebrations can take a humorous tone, as celebrants remember funny events and anecdotes about the departed. Telling stories about the deceased is definitely a part of the celebration.
We visited the Ajijic graveyard on November 1. This is the day to honor the family’s children who have died, the day before the main Día de Muertos celebrations. This is a day, we had heard, that people would be cleaning and decorating graves. The cemetery is west of Ajijic, a bit more than one mile after Colon street, just before the location of the Tuesday Organic Market. We had passed it many times without noticing what it was.
There were live plants and flowers, growing in pots, for sale at the entrance. If you did not get your Flowers of the Dead beforehand, you could buy them here.
Once inside we saw the graveyard, plots close together, each with its own design, headstone and decoration. In the US, graveyards are neat and orderly. This is crowded with graves, with little seeming order, and every family has its own idea about their graves.
Today, overlaid over the basic chaotic pattern, there is another element, the colorful decorations.
These are gifts for the spirit of a dead child. This first grave we look closely at. It is pretty poignant.
The family is gathered around their grave, decorating it for the celebration.
Hanging blue and silver stars decorate this one.
They are setting out flower arrangements. (Actually I think these are made from plastic flowers, so they will last a long time.)
More flower arrangements.
To the north of the graveyard, you can see this green hills and bright blue sky. Pretty usual sights for this place.
Marigolds (flores de muerto) planted by this headstone. This isn’t a grave of a child, however, but of two people who lived long lives.
This man is working on a grave, near the headstone.
They went all-out with decorations and flags. More about the flags, called “papel picado,” later.
For this gravesite, the family has built a covered brick structure and altar around and over the headstone. And now it is filled with flowers.
A small, one-plot grave, neatly decorated and cared for. There remains plenty of love in this family.
This is a family day, so the whole family is here, including the kids. Boys, though, need to find some way to play. I found these three boys here.
Pinwheels here, many, many of them.
This seems like “Mission style,” and I like the rustic wooden cross.
So formal, the two white crosses, one with Mary at the base on the cross, and another with a traditional Jesus on the Cross.
It looks like this family is talking about what they are going to do. I see materials on the ground of the gravesite.
More boys playing. They found some kind of hole, too.
This is a big group here. I think they are doing more than just cleaning and decorating. I think this is a part of their family holiday gathering.
Neat, clean, decorated graves.
This is a miniature ofrenda, like they would have at home. It includes a photo of the deceased.
A couple just sits here. I think maybe they have cleared and decorated, and now just sit to commune with their departed loved ones.
This grave site has its own Catholic church built inside, to provide for the well-being of the deceased.
I was fascinated by this abstract Jesus on this cross. I love the rib cage.
Aw, nice job!
Neglected, but neat.
Neglected. Not neat. Just neglected. I guess this grave no longer has any people to care for it. Sad, in a whole new way.
This grave sure has someone to love it.
Not too much here. There are some decorations, but no one cleaned.
1,2,3,4,5 here I come, ready or not.
Bright flowers add a sense of gaiety to this grave.
Another family working at their grave.
We have to keep the fences painted and in good repair.
On our way out, Carol stands and takes everything in.
Simple, but still somebody cares.
Mariachi musicians come to the graveyard today and sing for families. We’re told that some families hire musicians to play throughout the night.
The overriding feeling I have after this graveyard walk is of all the love and caring that exists within the fold of the family. These are very healthy families, that have as a part of their life this basic caring for one another.
Chapala Altares de Muertos
I am not sure if these Altares de Muertos, public ofrendas, are organized by the City of Chapala or if they are a part of the annual “Festival Cultural de Vida y Muerte Chapala” put on by the University of Guadalajara and the La Preparatoria regional de Chapala Jalisco (Regional Preparatory School Chapala Jalisco)
This is a group activity, rather then just a family one. These Altares de Muertos are are much like the home ofrendas, but on a bigger scale. This year it was located in Chapala, near the Malecon, on Avenida Francisco I Madero between Hidalgo and the Malecon.
We are greeted by a giant calaca, skeleton. This is “native-style” rather than “Catrina-style” I note, so a more traditional image.
On both sides of the street there are rows of Altares with people standing around, either working on them and just looking, like us.
One group at work. I did not think to ask them who they were or why they are doing this. I noticed when I looked through our photos of the day that they were young people, maybe college age. So maybe this is put on by the Chapala and Guadalajara college/university group? Anyone know for sure?
This ofrenda is typical of many we see today, with an arch in front, colored sawdust “carpet” (tapetes de aserrín) on the ground, and a multilevel ofrenda in the rear.
Unpacking materials for their altar. Everything has a meaning. In the flower rope the woman is unpacking, purple represents mourning, and hot pink and bright orange signify the joyful return of the departed to the land of the living. The marigolds, cempasúchil, or flor de muerto, are believed to carry the smell of death, a smell that leads the dead home.
The ofrendas have at least three levels or tiers, and each level has a significance.
The topmost tier identifies the dead person who is being invited to the altar, frequently with photos of the deceased, along with images of various saints, statuettes of the Virgin Mary, crucifixes, etc.
On the second tier are things placed to encourage the dead to feel at home and welcome: the deceased person’s favorite food items might go here, including such things as mole, candy, pan dulce, and especially a special sweet bread called pan de muerto. For deceased adults, the ofrenda might include a bottle or poured shot glasses of tequila or mezcal, while if the deceased is a child here might be placed a favorite toy.
The bottom-most tier almost always contains lit candles, and might also have a washbasin, mirror, soap, and a towel so that the spirit of the deceased can see and refresh themselves upon arrival at the altar. The family wants to be a good host to their departed, and the ofrenda helps them do so.
You can see the deceased’s photograph below, at the very top of the altar.
This is an unusual one, with just the grave. (With a carpet of marigold petals in front).
In the grave is a skeleton, with ancient pottery scattered around it. So I think this commemorates a general ancient ancestor.
The photo below is of Jose Guadalupe Rodriguez Reynoso, 1931 – 2015. He has a nickname, “El Chendengue.” I tried to find out what that means, but cannot. I have heard that it is just a nickname, based on a word he once said or a sound he once made.
In trying to learn the meaning of “Chendengue,” I asked our friend Esperanza. She said he was well known in the community, a man with no wife and family, who went around Chapala in his wheel chair. He spent much time out in public and everybody knew him. Maybe this ofrenda was done for him because he has no family to honor him.
Around the photos are banners. These are papel picado. They were originally perforated paper or tissue. Now I think most of them are plastic and precut.
Notice the plate of buns below the photo? This is the pan de muerto, Bread of the Dead.
A wheelchair is prominent in El Chendengue’s display. (Along with a change of clothes.) I guess he used these in his last years.
Nice altar with an arch. Much use of purple, for mourning.
They are laying out the sawdust carpet here. I see that sometimes they use stencils.
A young woman with her Catrina face on.
Young folks, goofing off.
Skulls, calaveras, are scattered around the ofrenda.
A saddle awaits this soul. He must have been a rider of horses, a common sight here.
Putting the finishing touches on the altar.
We found it endearing that many of the ofrendas included large posters, mostly hand-written, telling the story of the deceased, both in Spanish and in English. Each has his story. It is so good to have it told.
In a food stand, all the helpers have their calavera masks painted on.
Another well executed ofrenda.
Catrina stands to the left of it.
A suit, dress shirt, and shoes are set off for this returning soul.
Flags, papel picado, flutter above this altar.
Hola Catrina. Como esta?
Story on one of the people honored today. He was notable musician and died in 2000.
His guitar, in the sawdust carpet.
Here he is.
This sawdust carpet reminds me very much of the Tamil Kolams, colored rice flour designs put in front of houses.
A row of several ofrendas.
Altar to a military man.
I notice that a common element in the sawdust carpet is a path from the front up to the altar.
Another young woman with her Catrina face.
Here is the face artist at work.
The path through the sawdust is lined with candles, to be lit at night and guide the spirits.
Another Catrina, all in blue.
Sawdust painting of Catrina.
This Chapala display showed me some of the care and reverence the exists for the dead in Mexico. All in all, it is touching. It is about people caring about people.
Even at Walmart
The festivities extend even to the local Walmart.
San Antonio Tlayacapan Plaza
That evening we stopped by a place that we knew had mainly a Mexican flavor, the nearby plaza in San Antonio Tlayacapan. We thought we would find something there, and sure were not disappointed.
Catrinas hanging from a line.
Ofrenda with candles lit, to show the way.
Another one. What’s that on her shoulder? Is it a baby or child?
Display of photos, lit by candles.
We didn’t expect to see a Hula dance, but here it is.
Reverential display. Feels comforting to me.
Blue light illumines this one. Nice!
Another ofrenda, laid out with treats for the deceased.
This was a small local celebration, but it seemed true and close to the real spirit of the holiday. Worthwhile to go here tonight.
Chapala Panteon Municipal
For my final Dia de Muertos outing, I went to the Chapala Panteon Municipal, near Soriana in Chapala on November 3, the day after the big day.
I could recognize the Camposanto, the graveyard, only because I knew the word Panteon from my Internet research. There is a high wall surrounding it, with a formal entrance in the front. Above the entrance is the sign, “Panteon Municipal. ”
Outside the entrance there were vendors selling sugar canes and other items of food.
Inside the graveyard, it was a pretty quiet today. Decorations were up, and still fresh.
Not many people there, so I was able to have a peaceful look around. So much care is taken on these graves.
Grave covered with flowers, with a photo at the end.
Colorful and happy flowers.
This one has a bed of orange marigold petals.
A Cathedral is built in this grave.
I was amused to see the plaque of a man and his rooster, his gallo. “Gallo” is also slang for “dear friend.” I think the plaque says this man, V. Manual Real, is a dear friend.
His grave is well decorated.
There were a handful of people cleaning and decorating, late in the celebration, but still they are here.
Colors of caring family members …
…adorn the graveyard.
Many fresh flowers here today.
At this grave I saw something that a thought was kind of funny …
…Catrina standing next to Jesus.
I finally stopped and noticed what is cut into many of these papel picado: calaveras, skeletons, having a good time for this holiday.
As I walked by this grave, the men motioned me to come and look.
There were nicely formed statues, angels and such.
These were made by the man pictured below. His son is proud of his father’s work.
Here are the son and father, sitting in the front of the grave.
This part of the graveyard has many statues and crosses rising above the graves in a forest of white.
Close-up of a grave. I like all the colors!
As I left, I looked behind me at the entrance of the graveyard. Jesus is there to greet all those who visit here.
After these four days I feel that this is such a moving family time in Mexico. It is wonderful to see love expressed by caring families. In America we seem to be terrified of death, while in most of the world death is just an inevitable part of life. We are surrounded by life and death. The Mexicans not only do not hide death, as done in the US, but they embrace it and celebrate it. That is why Catrina has become so popular; she stands for the celebration of death. What is really being celebrated, I think, is life and family and the love that we have for one another. That is surely worth a party!