Music and wonderful smells fill the air, and skulls and skeletons are everywhere—some made of sugar, others made of paper-mache. And for some reason, the cemetery is aglow with families decorating with bright orange flowers and cleaning the gravesites of loved ones.
Welcome to “El Día de los Muertos,” which means “Day of the Dead.”
El Día de los Muertos is a holy day with some of its traditions going back more than 5,000 years! This special time coincides with All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2), and is a time to remember and honor family members who have died.
It’s a combination of Spanish and pre-Hispanic cultures like that of the Aztecs. But the celebrations have evolved—there isn’t one “right way.” In some places it lasts a day, in other places it’s a two-day celebration, and some Mexican villages make it a month-long celebration.
The cemetery celebrations can be spectacular. Orange marigolds called “CEMPAZUCHITL” seem to be everywhere; candles and incense burn; musicians play the deads’ favorite songs, and a priest may walk the cemetery saying prayers for the departed. Family members bring the favorite food of their departed loved ones and may even stay the night!
Families also may elaborately decorate their homes. The marigolds are woven into beautiful arches for the altar, where candles are lit to help guide the spirits back home. Smells also help guide the spirits, so the departed’s favorite foods are placed on the altar along with lit incense. Intricately cut, colorful paper called “papel picado” is hung.
Cartoon-like skulls and skeletons are meant to be fun, not scary! “Pan de muertos” or “bread of the dead” are small loaves decorated with sugar and icing.
El Día de los Muertos is a time to show departed family members respect, love and joy.