Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead): A brief summary of the custom

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The Day of the Dead is a special holiday in México that is celebrated on November 2nd each year. This is a day when the spirits of dearly departed loved ones are thought to travel across the dimensions to pay a visit to the homes where they once lived. It is a time for remembering those who are gone with love and reverence, and for a celebration of life and renewal. Families honor their loved ones by telling stories about them, and by preparing meals and beverages that the departed used to enjoy in life. Usually the living relatives create a special altar in a designated area of the home and decorate it with items that they believe the souls of the departed will find comforting, reassuring, and welcoming at the end of their long journey.

The offerings (las ofrendas) displayed on each altar may include favorite foods, wreaths or petals of marigolds, candles, and incense. The smell of burning incense (copal) and the light of numerous candles are intended to help the departed find their way home. The altar may also include items that serve to remind the living of the departed such as photographs, a diploma, or a favorite article of clothing.

In addition to the altar being arranged within the home, family members also travel to the local cemetery. Here they will carefully clean and decorate the family gravesite in the days leading up to November 2. In some cases this may entail cutting down weeds, making structural repairs, or giving tombs a fresh coat of whitewash. The graves are then lavishly decorated according to local custom, and on November 2 family members gather at the cemetery for graveside reunions that are always more festive than somber. Picnic baskets and bottles of tequila may be brought to the cemetery for the purpose of toasting the departed. The meals prepared for these picnics are spectacular, usually featuring tamales, meat dishes in spicy sauces, chocolate beverages, cookies, sugary confections in a variety of animal or skull shapes, and a special egg-batter bread called “pan de muerto,” or bread of the dead.

From mid-October through the first week of November, markets and shops all over México are overflowing with unique Day of the Dead decorations and gifts. These include all types of skeletons (calacas) and other macabre toys; masks (calaveras), intricate tissue paper cut-outs (papel picado); elaborate wreaths and crosses decorated with paper or silk flowers; candles and votive lights; and fresh seasonal flowers, particularly marigolds (cempazuchiles) and cockscomb (barro de obispo). Among the edible goodies offered are candy skulls, coffins made from sugar, chocolate or amaranth seeds and special baked goods.

Especially popular is “pan de muerto”, which comes in various sizes topped with bits of dough shaped like bones. In some regions, bread loaves are molded into humanoid figures called animas (souls). All of these goods are destined for the altars or to help decorate the gravesite for November 2 festivities. A warm social environment is created by family members gathering at the cemetery. The colorful setting and the abundance of food, drink and good company gives this commemoration of the dead pleasant overtones and is a way for recognizing the cycle of life and death that is human existence.