Los Dias de los Muertos
Traditions and Celebrations

An important aspect of the holiday is the closure that it provides for families who have lost a loved one during the previous year. Without embalming, burial must take place within 24 hours of death. During this short period, the body is laid out in the coffin at home, surrounded by candles, flowers, family and friends. While the family and friends gather, and sit in vigil during the night, then return for another week to recite the rosary, there is often little time for acceptance or reality. Preparing for the return of the spirit each fall lets the family remember and honor their dead, and gives them a chance to heal. The act of preparing an altar by placing photographs, flowers, candles, favorite foods and drink of the loved one provides a special time to remember, and to transform grief into acceptance. The living invite the spirits of the family to return home for a few hours of laughter, tears and memories.

A lively procession with an open coffin parades though town. The townspeople dress up as ghouls, ghosts, mummies and skeletons and parade through the town carrying an open coffin. The "corpse" waves and smiles. The local vendors toss oranges inside as the procession makes its way past their markets. Lucky "corpses" can also catch flowers, fruits, and candies. In the homes families arrange ofrenda's or "altars" with flowers, bread, fruit and candy. Pictures of the deceased family members are added. In the late afternoon special all night burning candles are lit - it is time to remember the departed - the old ones, their parents and grandparents.

Skeletons and skulls are found everywhere. Chocolate skulls, marzipan coffins, and white chocolate skeletons. Special loaves of bread are baked, called pan de muertos, and decorated with "bones. Handmade skeleton figurines, called calacas, are part of the Day of the Dead celebration. Calacas usually show an active and joyful afterlife. Figures of musicians, generals on horseback, even skeletal brides, in their white bridal gowns marching down the aisles with their boney grooms.

Some families prepare the altar of offerings at the family grave site, lighting a candle for each dead one, remembering the names, and placing flowers or coronas (wreaths) at the cemetery. Many stay to visit, eat, drink and pray while they keep a vigil during the night. 

Families gather in the graveyard. They arrive with hoes, picks and shovels. They also carry flowers, candles, blankets, and picnic baskets. They have come to clean the graves of their loved ones. The grave sites are weeded and the dirt raked smooth. The Crypts are scrubbed and swept. An ofrenda (an altar) is constructed near the headstone. Colorful flowers, bread, fruit and candles are placed on the graves. Candles are lit for each departed soul and zenpasuchitls adorn the grave. It is believed that the strong scent of these marigolds help the spirits make their way to this world. All day people prepare for this all night gala. This is by no means a somber event. The dead are welcomed happily. The favorite foods of the departed have been prepared. Roaming musicians play the favorite music of the departed. Some people even bring radios and televisions. Food vendors set up outside the cemetery gates for those who are not quite prepared or have late night munchies. All night, throughout the cemetery there is a grand family reunion of huge extended families, alive and dead, as one by one, through stories, memories and dreams, the dead return. On this night, those who wait realize the importance of living to be well remembered, working to be well respected and loving to be well missed.

At the close of the celebration people run around with skulls masks and ghost costumes to scare away any spirits that might not want to return to the other world.

Once the spirits have returned to their world, those alive know that for another year they have triumphed in the struggle of life and that the only way to celebrate death is to live with courage. They have faced death and have won, saying, "Look here, you old bald skull - you fleshless one - you didn't get me - I have survived to live again today."