Dia De Los Muertos Deconstructed

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A part of Mexican tradition, Dia De Los Muertos festivities unfold over two days in an explosion of color and life-affirming joy while demonstrating love and respect for deceased family members and loved ones.


Day of the Dead originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people, who considered mourning the dead disrespectful. For these pre-Hispanic cultures, death was a natural phase in life’s long continuum. The dead were still members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit—and during Día de los Muertos, they temporarily returned to Earth. Today’s Día de los Muertos celebration is a mash-up of pre-Hispanic religious rites and Christian feasts. It takes place on November 1 and 2—All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on the Catholic calendar—around the time of the fall maize harvest.

Recognition by UNESCO

Thanks to efforts by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, the term “cultural heritage” is not limited to monuments and collections of objects. It also includes living expressions of culture—traditions—passed down from generation to generation. In 2008, UNESCO recognized the importance of Día de los Muertos by adding the holiday to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Today Mexicans from all religious and ethnic backgrounds celebrate Día de los Muertos, but at its core, the holiday is a reaffirmation of indigenous life.


The centerpiece of the celebration is an altar, or ofrenda, built in private homes and cemeteries. These aren’t altars for worshipping; rather, they’re meant to welcome spirits back to the realm of the living. As such, they’re loaded with offerings—water to quench thirst after the long journey, food, family photos, and a candle for each dead relative. If one of the spirits is a child, you might find small toys on the altar. Marigolds are the main flowers used to decorate the altar. Scattered from altar to gravesite, marigold petals guide wandering souls back to their place of rest. The smoke from copal incense, made from tree resin, transmits praise and prayers and purifies the area around the altar.



Used to quench the thirst

of the spirit.


This flower is known to direct the soul to its home by its color

and smell.


Represents the spirit’s ascension and serves as a guiding light.


Fragrance that cleanses and purifies the environment, driving away evil spirits.

Fruit: Offering of nature and connection to the earthly plane, most commonly used is sugar cane, mexican hawthorne, tangerines and guavas.


Seeds: Corn and cocoa are used to form patterns in the soil, usually crosses. It is the representation of the earth.


Xoloitzcuintle figure (clay dog figurine): Companion of souls. This character is placed as a toy for children.

Small colorful lilies and baby’s breath flowers: Their colors complement the marigolds and symbolize the purity and tenderness to accompany and represent children’s souls.


Arches: They symbolize the gateway into the world of the dead, often decorated with marigolds, fruits and sweets.


Cross: Element introduced during the Christian evangelization. The small salt cross on the altar serves as a means to purify the spirit, and the ash cross to help the spirit out of purgatory.


Pan de Muerto: It represents kinship and the bones of the dead.


Photograph of the Deceased: Placed on the altar to identify and honor the deceased 


Cooked Dishes: They are placed so that the spirit is guided home by the aromas of their favorite dishes.


Sugar skulls: They symbolize the concept of death being sweet and not bitter. A living person can put their names on the sugar skull forehead to mock death in a lighthearted way. The skulls can be made out of sugar, chocolate or amaranth.


Salt: Believed to help preserve the purity of the body as the spirit makes its journey to the land of the dead.


Papel Picado: Represents the wind and the joy of living.


Alcohol: Some altars contain traditional alcoholic beverages such as tequila, eggnog and pulque served in clay containers and are used to please the deceased. 

Literary Calaveras

Calavera means “skull.” But during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, calavera was used to describe short, humorous poems, which were often sarcastic tombstone epitaphs published in newspapers that poked fun at the living. These literary calaveras eventually became a popular part of Día de los Muertos celebrations. Today the practice is alive and well. You’ll find these clever, biting poems in print, read aloud, and broadcast on television and radio programs.


The Calavera Catrina

In the early 20th century, Mexican political cartoonist and lithographer José Guadalupe Posada created an etching to accompany a literary calavera. Posada dressed his personification of death in fancy French garb and called it Calavera Garbancera, intending it as social commentary on Mexican society’s emulation of European sophistication. “Todos somos calaveras,” a quote commonly attributed to Posada, means “we are all skeletons.” Underneath all our manmade trappings, we are all the same.

In 1947 artist Diego Rivera featured Posada’s stylized skeleton in his masterpiece mural “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park.” Posada’s skeletal bust was dressed in a large feminine hat, and Rivera made his female and named her Catrina, slang for “the rich.” Today, the calavera Catrina, or elegant skull, is the Day of the Dead’s most ubiquitous symbol.


Food of the Dead

You work up a mighty hunger and thirst traveling from the spirit world back to the realm of the living. At least that’s the traditional belief in Mexico. Some families place their dead loved one’s favorite meal on the altar. Other common offerings:

Pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, is a typical sweet bread (pan dulce), often featuring anise seeds and decorated with bones and skulls made from dough. The bones might be arranged in a circle, as in the circle of life. Tiny dough teardrops symbolize sorrow.

Sugar skulls are part of a sugar art tradition brought by 17th-century Italian missionaries. Pressed in molds and decorated with crystalline colors, they come in all sizes and levels of complexity.

Drinks, including pulque, a sweet fermented beverage made from the agave sap; atole, a thin warm porridge made from corn flour, with unrefined cane sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla added; and hot chocolate.


Day of the Dead is an extremely social holiday that spills into streets and public squares at all hours of the day and night. Dressing up as skeletons is part of the fun. People of all ages have their faces artfully painted to resemble skulls, and, mimicking the calavera Catrina, they don suits and fancy dresses. Many revelers wear shells or other noisemakers to amp up the excitement—and also possibly to rouse the dead and keep them close during the fun.


Papel Picado

You’ve probably seen this beautiful Mexican paper craft plenty of times in stateside Mexican restaurants. The literal translation, pierced paper, perfectly describes how it’s made. Artisans stack colored tissue paper in dozens of layers, then perforate the layers with hammer and chisel points. Papel picadoisn’t used exclusively during Day of the Dead, but it plays an important role in the holiday. Draped around altars and in the streets, the art represents the wind and the fragility of life.

The Legend of the Butterflies

The arrival of monarch butterflies in Mexico coincides with the celebration of the Day of the Dead. For that reason there is a legend which says that these butterflies are actually the souls of the deceased who return to celebrate with the living. Another version points out that the dead travel on the wings of the butterflies.