What is Day of the Dead?

Posted: 06/03/2018

What is the Day of the Dead?

We take a look at All Souls Day, otherwise popularly known as Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday that celebrates the life of the deceased. Here at Perfect Funeral Plans, we have decided to take a look at the way in which they hold these celebrations, and the traditions and death rituals surrounding the festival.

When does the Day of the Dead take place?

The Day of the Dead (also known as Día de Los Muertos) is a festival celebrated in autumn between October 31st and November 2nd each year in Mexico and other Latin American countries. The premise behind it is a truly one of celebrating and honouring those who have passed away. It is a widely held belief in Mexico that the Day of the Dead is the time when the souls of the deceased return to earth once more, in order to visit friends and relatives and to provide counsel to them. In addition, it is believed that the souls of the deceased arrive at different times, depending on their age. It is thought that that the souls of children arrive on November 1st, whilst the souls of adults return on November 2nd.

What happens on the Day of the Dead?

Generally speaking, people on the day will visit the graves or burial sites of the dead. During the festival, close friends and family will dedicate some of the days to cleaning the graves, making sure any debris that has accumulated is swept away and that most importantly, that the graves are decorated with numerous flowers. After the cleaning has taken place, it is commonplace to hold a party in the graveyard, to honour the souls of the dead and their spiritual embarkment into the afterlife. Family and friends may also choose to decorate the cemeteries with tissue paper (known as papeles picado) in beautifully intricate designs that honour the deceased. Others decide to wear calacas during the festivities, which are wooden skull masks.

It is also common for people to hold a commemoration in their homes for the deceased. Many people decide to set up altars (also known as ofrendas) during this time in their homes, which may be decorated with any of the following:

  • Flowers, particularly Marigolds, (known as cempsuchil) as it is thought that the smell of these flowers helps to bring the dead from their graves to the family homes
  • Drinks, in order to quench the thirst of the deceased, alcohol, may be consumed
  • Pictures of the deceased
  • Monarch butterflies, (which migrate to Mexico every Autumn) which represent the soul of the departed return to visit their loved ones in Mexican culture
  • Toys for the souls of dead children (known as los angelitos, meaning our little angels)
  • Ceramic Skulls
  • Burning copal (which is resin from the copal tree) is also commonplace with the scent thought to invite the deceased back home
  • Candles
  • Favourite food of the dead

It is important to note that whilst the Day of the Dead is celebrated over Halloween, the festival is not to be scary in any respect. It is very much a colourful, carnivalesque atmosphere in Mexico and the frequency of skulls in all shapes and forms aren’t supposed to invoke fear. In Mexican culture, the skulls are symbolic of the circle of life, and that death is simply a part of it and should be celebrated.

For Mexicans, death is not supposed to be something that one is scared of. In fact, the Day of the Dead celebrations are characterised by black humour, and children will join in, eating skull sweets or bread in the shape of skulls. The latter has a specific name called Pan de Muertos (meaning the bread of the dead), which is a sweet eggy bread made that is traditionally eaten over the course of the celebrations, and often in various shapes and sizes too.

 Day of the Dead traditions


A woman dressed up in traditional day of the dead clothes and make-up for the event honouring the deceased.

If you have visited Mexico during the Day of the Dead festival, or have seen photos of the event, you will have noticed that it tends to be an extremely vibrant event and that there is a ubiquity of skulls. But did you know that the colours of these skulls all have different meanings?  We take a look at what the colours mean:

  • Pink symbolises happiness
  • White symbolises the spirit or purity of the deceased
  • Yellow reflects unity and the sun
  • Red represents the blood of life
  • Purple symbolises mourning

When did the Day of the Dead originate?

Despite the event being a significant part of Mexican culture today, it isn’t thought that the festival originated in Mexico. In fact, it is believed that the Day of the Dead festival originated some 3,000 years ago by the Aztecs, and the concept behind the event merges with Christian principles.  The event has been traced back to the Philippines originally when it was governed by the Viceroyalty of New Spain (who found they couldn’t eradicate the festival) from Mexico City. The festival still has significance in the Philippines: it is custom for families to celebrate the lives of the deceased by holding gatherings where they play games, sing songs, and eat by the graveyard. Variations of the Day of the Dead also exist in Belize, Ecuador and Brazil.

In addition, the Day of the Dead festival hasn’t always been held in the Autumn, it was previously held in the summer. However, the event was moved to the end of October in order to coincide with both All Souls Day as well as All Saints Day, after the Spanish had arrived in Mexico, and when many of the people were then converted to become Roman Catholics.

Traditionally, the Day of the Dead festival also was much longer than it is now. Led by the ‘Lady of the Dead’  known as the goddess Mictecacihuatl the holiday honouring and celebrating the lives of the dead would last up to a month.