Celebrating Death: the Tradition of Día de los Muertos

In the months before and after my tenth birthday, I experienced the death of three family members all pretty close together. My great-uncle, my grandfather, and my great-grandfather all died with a span of eight months, and I remember being incredibly unsettled by it. I found it difficult to sleep, or if I did sleep, I would have awful nightmares. I had crossed that threshold of being a normal child free of any concern about my mortality to suddenly being incredibly sensitive to the reality that we were all going to die.

That year for Día de los Muertos, my family and I joined a celebration with some friends with whom we served at our parish. I clearly recall working together with my dad and sister to make sugar skulls for my Tío Tomás, my Papá Toño, and my abuelito Isauro. We made little drawings of a barber shop, a baseball field, and construction tools to recall their favorite pastimes and placed them on the Altar de Muertos. Everyone went around and told stories about the lives of their loved ones with friends who had never even met them. We prayed, sang songs, ate, and celebrated both life and death — and it brought a lot of peace to my little ten-year-old heart.

A Tradition Surrounding Death

On November 1st and 2nd, people throughout Mexico, as well as some other Latin American countries, celebrate Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. More than just a “Mexican Halloween,” this holiday traces back to pre-Hispanic times, in which the ancient peoples (like the Mayan, Olmec, Mexicas, etc.) would regularly honor the lives of their deceased by setting aside times of celebration and ritual, usually coinciding with the start of the harvest season. During the period of colonization of Mexico, Christian missionaries saw this as a connection to the celebrations of All Saints and All Souls, and used these long-held traditions as opportunities to evangelize.

Today, Día de los Muertos is celebrated most widely in southern and central Mexico, but its major traditions continue to be held throughout the country and have even been adopted by other Latin American nations. The two-day festivals often include processions that begin and end in the local churches, block parties, candlelit vigils, live music, bailes folklóricos (traditional dance), and an overall gathering of community. The focus of the celebration, however, is around the Altar de Muertos, or Altar for the Dead. While this may seem slightly morbid, this altar is a tangible way to remember the dead. Families, neighbors, or sometimes an entire town or village comes together to create the altar, filling it with symbols which serve as a bridge between life and death. Here are some of the common elements of an altar and their meanings:

  • Papel picado (decorative paper banners): their bright colors indicate celebration, but they’re also seen a representation of the connection between this world and the next
  • Calaveras (skulls): usually made of sugar or chocolate, each one is decorated to distinctly represent each person who has died in this family or friend group, and often the names of the deceased are written on the skulls themselves
  • Pictures/personal items of the deceased: placed around their corresponding skulls, these again remind us to think fondly of our loved ones who have gone before us
  • Cruces (crosses): usually found at the top of the altar, the cross can be made of salt (to represent the need for purification) or of ashes (to remind us that we are dust and to dust we shall return)
  • Veladoras (candles): the light of each candle is to light the way for the any lost souls, and are often placed all around and throughout the altar; sometimes they are dedicated to different Saints who could be an intercessor for the dead
  • Flores de cempasúchil (cempasúchil flowers): their bright golden color is another symbol of celebration, and their aroma is said to guide any lost souls
  • Pan de muerto (bread for the dead): added by the Catholic Spaniards, it is a symbol for the Eucharist; typically, it is dome-shaped with a cross-shaped sugar decoration on top

A Hopeful Reminder

Unlike the more terror-inducing traditions that happen on and around Halloween in the United States, Día de los Muertos attempts to instead demonstrate the joy that can be found when death isn’t dreaded, but embraced. Rather than making skulls and skeletons dark and frightening, they are made to be bright and sometimes even silly. As Catholics, we are invited to live with a similar perspective thanks to Christ’s victory over death, through which “Christian death has a positive meaning” (CCC 1010). Saint Paul tells us joyfully: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

Additionally, the celebration of Día de los Muertos is a hopeful reminder that death doesn’t end the relationship we have with our loved ones. In the celebration of the Solemnity of All Saints and the Commemoration of All Souls, the Church boldly proclaims that death doesn’t interrupt our union with those who now sleep in Christ! Instead, “this union is reinforced by an exchange of spiritual goods” (Lumen Gentium, 49) — AKA, we pray for those that have gone before us. When we pray for the dead, celebrating their life and death, we are strengthening our communion with them. This communion is an anticipation of the perfect unity we will have when are all face to face with Father for eternity.

So this year for Día de los Muertos, don’t forget to be part of the celebration! Make an Altar de Muertos for your loved ones, or join a community celebration at your parish, in your neighborhood or city, or start your own with family and friends. Above all, pray: for the souls in need of prayer, entrusting them to the mercy of God; and have hope for the life awaiting us in Heaven.

But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him
(Romans 6:8).

Looking for a festive way to enter into the season? Check out Life Teen’s Día de los Muertos themed phone wallpaper.