The Day of the Dead is a unique festivity to honor and celebrate the lives of loved ones who passed away. Mexico and several other countries, including Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, and Guatemala, celebrated the day of the dead on the 1st and 2nd of November.

This celebration’s splendor and exquisiteness attract the world’s attention. For some, it may feel peculiar to celebrate death, but for the cultures that do, the day holds great meaning and significance.

History of the day

During the prehispanic era, the cult to death was one of the main aspects of the culture. When someone passed away, the people would wrap their bodies, and the families organized a gathering to guide the soul to get to Mictlan.

In their tomb, the families would also put food for the deceased to eat in case of hunger. For these cultures, the day of the dead meant the temporary return of their loved ones. It was also for the deceased to take the essence of the food on their altar.

On this day, the Mexicans celebrate the existence of their deceased, not their absence. Here, death is a symbol of life present on the altar with several philosophical and material meanings.

Its origin lies between the catholic rituals and the commemoration of the day made by the prehispanic cultures. The prehispanic cultures started to honor their dead nearly 3000 years ago.

The Mexicas, Mixtecs, Texcocanos, Zapotecs, Tlaxcalans, Totonacs, and other cultures, started to honor their deceased according to the Christian calendar. The Mexica culture celebrated this day as a tribute to the god that defined the destiny of the souls.

In Aztec Mythology, Mictlāntēcutli is the God of the dead and the King of Mictlan, the place of the dead where the souls rest eternally. The journey to the place is difficult, and the soul must overcome several obstacles for eternal rest.

Representation of Mictlanteuctli
Representation of Mictlanteuctli

The Florentine Codex stated that the Mictlan had different sections according to the way of death. The warriors that died in the battleground went to Tonatiuh Ichan, the house of the sun. The kids and teens that died went to Cincalco, the home of the god Tonacatecutli. The young age at which they passed away made them innocent.

The beginning of the journey to Mictlan

For the souls to be able to start the journey, the people had to accompany them. The senior women announced death through screams and tears and shrouded the deceased with their personal belongings.

Four days later, the people took the body to bury or incinerate it. This meant that the soul finally started its journey toward eternal rest. After this, every year for four years, everyone organized lavishing parties in the place where the body or the ashes were.

This ritual helped the souls and made it easier for the families to grieve. With the arrival of the Spaniards, it transformed. The religious representatives started to create the current tradition on the day the prehispanic celebrated their tribute to Mictlantecuhtli.

The contemporary ‘Day of the dead’

In 2003, UNESCO declared the day of the dead a World Immaterial Heritage. Earlier, the people built their altars two days before November started. Today because of the effort needed to make the altars, the people start before the day and dismantle the altars after it.

According to the catholic calendar, 1st November is All Saints Day, while the next day is the Faithful Departed. 1st November is to celebrate the deceased children, while the second is to celebrate the adults.

Levels of the altars

A full altar has seven levels. The altars that have two levels symbolize the world of the living and the underworld, or heaven and hell. The ones with three levels represent heaven, earth, and hell.

The seven-level altar represents all the necessary steps to reach heaven and rest in peace. There are mandatory objects that the altar needs to have, and those are the ones that represent the four elements.

The objects can be seen in the figure:

Levels and meaning of the objects in the altar
Levels and meaning of the objects in the altar
Creation of the altars 

To build an altar, you will need boxes, preferably measuring them to make the levels or using tables. If you use boxes, paint them as you wish, if you use a table, put a tablecloth.

When the paint on the boxes is dry, glue them to form the desired levels. The tables are to make a two-level altar or maybe three. Later, when the boxes are glued, use the glue again with the chopped paper at the front of each level and on each altar floor where the objects will be.

If you use tables, then it is necessary to paste the chopped paper on the front of the tables and other places that you like. After you finish with the chopped paper, continue to decorate the levels with either cempasuchil petals or other objects.

The final step is to put the rest of the objects on the different levels of the altar. Usually, the photographs have to be on the highest level of the altar, but if it is for more than one person, then their pictures will be on the next level.

Objects in the altar

Each year, the families build an altar to put important objects to their deceased. Each altar has cempasuchil flowers, chopped paper, sugar skulls, the bread of the dead, a mole, or some dish that the person on the altar used to like.

What do the objects on the altar mean?

The altars also have incense to aromatize the place, just like it happened during the prehispanic era. Altars can be in homes or cemeteries, the latter was because the natives thought this helped the souls to be on the correct path after their deaths.

The tradition indicates that the altar has to have cempasuchil petals to facilitate the return of loved ones. It is also necessary to have candles to guide souls to their destinies. In ancient times, this path started from their homes to the cemeteries where their loved ones were.

Meaning of the objects in the altar
Meaning of the objects in the altar
Representation of the four elements and other meanings

The water is the symbol of the fountain of life. It is there for the deceased to drink after their journey to the land of the living. The fruit represents the earth and is there for the person to eat. The flowers also represent the earth, and altars have several types with different functions on them.

Then the people represent the fire with candles that symbolize the faith and hope necessary to guide the path of the souls. The altars need sugar and chocolate skulls to remind us that death is part of life and that we are only mortals.

Returning to the presence of flowers on the altar, most people create an archway of cempasuchil (marigold) flowers. This arc represents the trip between the world of the dead and the living.

Altars should include a photograph of the deceased person or people to which we dedicate the altar. The altars usually have religious symbols or pictures depending on the religious devotion of those who make them.

Altars should have salt to purify and prevent the soul from falling to evil in their two-way trip. The people form a cross with the salt, with two different meanings. In the mesoamerican cultures, it represents the cardinal points to guide the culture, and for Catholics, it is the resurrection that forgives.

Final objects in the altar

Altars need to put a copal on the altar to cleanse the place where it is, to allow the soul to arrive at its home without any danger. The pan de Muerto is present on the altar to represent the cycle of life and death. In the center, it has a circle that is the skulls, and strips on the sides that represent the bones.

Finally, everyone puts the deceased’s favorite objects, such as food, toys, a book, balls, cigars, and chocolate.

Events in Mexico

In Morelia, the president of the city announced a total of 25 events in October. For example, in another town called Capula, there is a Catrina Fair. In a theater located in the center of Morelia, they also had a play called Anima.

One of the altars in the center of Morelia
One of the altars in the center of Morelia

One of the last events that Morelia had was the special lighting of the cathedral on 5th November. The people decorated the local cemetery, and similarly, that was a Local Sweets Fair that ended on 2nd November.

Talking about altars, the people built impressive altars all over the center and made flower tapestries. The first day of the dead parade in Mexico City was in a James Bond movie called Spectre, and ever since, the Government has organized one in the city.

Octavio Paz once said we are mortals because we are made of time and history. But there are instant exits through culture, and poetic acts, that dissolve the time to escape history and death.

The towns of Janitzio and Tzintzunzan have a reputation as the most beautiful decorated cemeteries in the country. Michoacan is the town where the day of the dead has the most vital presence. The Purepecha that live in Janitzio organize a walking vigil around the lake and the island.

On the eve of this day, the bells start ringing, and the souls begin to arrive. The living reunite with their mortal rests to contemplate at the candles of the altar and pray. A legend of the Purepecha tells that when people died, they turned into monarch butterflies over an enchanted lake on the Island.

According to the legend, you only need to open your heart to see the souls in the lake of Patzcuaro.

Representation outside Mexico

All over the world, the embassies and consulates of Mexico built their altars and organized their events. By doing this, they promote the tradition and stay close to the Mexican communities.

Each embassy dedicated an altar to a single different Mexican icon or multiple ones, some didn’t have a dedication. They also organized their respective celebrations, traditional dances, and art manifestations and dressed in typical clothing.

An example of the art manifestations was the exposition named Day of the Dead in Belgium. The members of the missions also wore traditional makeup to look like Catrinas and Calaveras.

This is an opportunity for the Mexicans that live abroad to feel in touch with their culture, to have a piece of their country with them. The embassies’ efforts also help improve the image of their country in the one they are in and promote the culture.

Thanks to those efforts, this day is popular in the world. Still, there is a huge number of Mexicans who know about the day but don’t celebrate it. There are traditions attached to this day that got lost so long ago. Globalization has made people more disconnected from their cultural traditions.

Perception of other countries of this day

There are two perspectives of this day in the global community. As per the first one, there is confusion regarding why some cultures celebrate this day and care so deeply about it.

As per the second, people marvel due to the explosion of color and complexity of the celebrations. They also marvel at the passion and dedication of everyone who participates in building the altars, wearing makeup and wearing typical suits.

Moreover, they also love the traditional accessories that the local artists make. Those examples are the catrinas sculptures, which come in different colors, and the traditional plates or sculptures with other shapes.

Representation of the day of the dead in Popular Media

The day of the dead has been portrayed in several fictional and artistic mediums, the most popular example being Disney’s Coco, which tells the story of a boy called Miguel, who is part of a shoemaker family dynasty. Miguel wants to be a musician, but his family wouldn’t let him, so he registers at a competition for musicians.

Miguel’s Grandmother discovers this, destroying his guitar to prevent him from entering as the family swore never to play music. Because of this, Miguel steals the guitar from a legend that passed away, and it takes him to the land of the dead.

Outside Hollywood is the 1960 Mexican supernatural drama film, Macario, centered on a Poor and hungry peasant Macario who wishes to have a good meal on the eve of the Day of the Dead. After his wife cooks him a turkey, he meets the Devil, God, and Death in three phantoms. The film was nominated for the Foreign Language award at the 33rd Academy Awards in 1961.

Origin of the catrina

In 1873, the illustrator José Guadalupe Posada painted the Catrina for the first time in a Mexican newspaper. Although the origin of the use of the skulls lies in the tribute to the dead, he was the creator of the Garbancera Skull or better known as Catrina.

La Catrina by Posada
La Catrina by Posada

Posada was born in Aguascalientes, and was an illustrator, printmaker, and cartoonist. The main characteristic of his work was to underline the festive character of the Mexicans and protest against the social differences of the times of Porfirio.

The original version of Catrina was in metal and only had her hat. La Catrina had the function of satirizing women who ignored their roots to follow European trends.

Example of a catrina sculpture
Example of a catrina sculpture

Diego Rivera was a popular painter and muralist. In his main work, “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park,” Rivera included the full body of Catrina and her suit. The name came from the word Catrin which referred to an elegant man with a woman with the same characteristics.

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park'
Diego Rivera’s ‘Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park’ (1947)
What does this day means to me?

As a Mexican, the Day of the dead is an opportunity to receive those we lost. It took a special meaning after my grandmother’s death almost six years ago, when she lost her fight against her illness. She was as important as my own mother to me.

Her loss meant losing someone who cared for me, taught me how to walk, and tried to make me eat healthily, who looked after me when I started to show signs of illness.

She took us to the market and always bought us little things that meant the world to my sister and me. My grandmother even laughed with us and at us when we did something funny. She was a warrior and an honest woman worthy of admiration.

At that time, I had just started to value her impact on my life. Having someone for so long usually means we are not entirely aware of their worth in our lives until that person leaves forever. Her death marked another chapter of my life when I left my country to look for a brighter future.

A final message for the one I lost 

I would conclude this feature with a final message for my grandmother. It was the first year that I finally dared to make an altar for her and my grandfather, whom I didn’t get to know. I had different reasons why I took so long to make one, and in a way, the reason was that I finally came to terms with her death.

It’s not that I wasn’t aware that she was gone because I was, but there were different feelings about it. By making this altar, I had to tell her that even though she is not here physically, she will always be there with me in other ways and that I honor her daily life.

My altar dedicated to my grandmother
My altar dedicated to my grandmother

It is also a way of saying sorry for not being able to say goodbye and not being with her the day she passed away. I kept carrying this with me, but this altar was the opportunity to do this.

And I wish those like me who lost their loved ones also find a way to make peace and say their goodbyes to their loved ones through this beautiful tradition.