A Guide to Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) Traditions for Funeral Service Professionals

As Halloween approaches, skeletons, witches and zombies seem to be everywhere. Candy is flying off the shelves as people prepare for the hordes of trick-or-treaters that will take to the streets on All Hallows Eve. In the United States, this time of year is full of superstitions, scary movies and elaborate costumes. But, as Americans are getting ready to frighten each other, people in Mexico have been busily preparing all month to honor their departed loved ones. Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is an annual festival that celebrates deceased friends and family members.

It’s important for funeral service professionals to be familiar with the many different traditions that accompany Día de los Muertos. Below is an explanation of the holiday’s key components.

Celebrating Death

This year, Día de los Muertos will celebrated on November 2. The festival starts early – often on October 31 or November 1. On these days, it is believed the gates of heaven are opened so the souls can return for one night to spend time with their families. It is during this time that the living and the dead are able to mingle. Contrary to the view Americans have of death and spirits on Halloween, Mexican cultures believe the souls who return are here to help their families. Día de los Muertos is seen as a triumph over death and becomes a celebration of life. Those celebrating it do not see death as something to be feared, but as a necessary continuation of life.

Ofrenda – The Offering

A very important part of Día de los Muertos is the ofrenda – the offering. The ofrenda is placed on an altar that holds symbolism from both native traditions and Catholic beliefs. This altar is not for worshipping the dead, but for honoring them.

Built inside the home, the altar can be as big or small as the family can accommodate. Each altar is unique, but all have distinct aspects which hold different symbolic meaning. Depending on the family’s beliefs and budget, the altar can have two to seven levels, representing the different stages of life and the afterlife. Each level is covered with a tablecloth and decorated with papel picados – artistically cut tissue paper that represents the wind. A photo of the deceased is placed in the very center of the altar and is surrounded by his or her favorite things – food, drinks, candy and toys for the children.

Each altar includes additional symbolic decorations:

  • Flowers – The traditional flower of Día de los Muertos is the cempasúchil, or the orange marigold. A trail of cempasúchil is left for the dead, leading them from their grave to the altar.
  • Copal – Copal is a type of incense that is burned on the ofrenda. It is believed that this incense attracts spirits and wards off evil, cleansing the area around the altar.
  • Archway – An archway is constructed directly behind the altar and can be made of corn stalks or sugar cane, depending on the availability and budget of the family. This archway represents the gateway from earth to the afterlife. It is typically decorated with fragrant and colorful flowers.
  • Candles – Altars are illuminated by an abundance of torches and candles. Each represents the love for deceased family members and acts as a beacon to guide the souls back home.
  • Calaveras – The most iconic symbol of Día de los Muertos is the calavera, or skull. Made out of sugar or chocolate, the name of the deceased is inscribed on the forehead of the skull to represent them. After the celebrations are over, children consume the skulls, to symbolize the ability to mock and play with death.
  • Food – The altar is covered with foods the deceased enjoyed the most while on earth. Tamales, mole, rice, pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and seasonal foods such as pumpkin and squash are also typical to see on an altar. The food provides the souls with enough energy and nourishment for their return journey to the afterlife.

Cleaning the Gravesite

When the souls of loved ones return, family members want to provide the best presentation possible. It is believed the first place the dead visit is their gravesite. To prepare for the return, families will spend days cleaning the graves of the deceased and decorating them with cempasúchil, candles and photos. They want the spirits to know they are welcome, so the families leave gifts such as food and drink for the adults and toys for the children. Many families will also sleep beside the grave to spend time with the returned souls. It is not uncommon to see families playing games and eating by candlelight during Día de los Muertos.

Each region of Mexico and Latin America celebrates Día de los Muertos a little differently. All are unique, but have the same idea about death – it is something to be celebrated, not feared.

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