At Better Place Forests, our mission is to inspire everyone to leave a meaningful legacy for the planet and the people they love. A big part of this is recognizing how different cultures, spiritual beliefs and religions think about death. Today we want to recognize and show respect for Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, and what it teaches us about the cycle of life.
Every November, the dead return to reconnect with the living. Día de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday that honors the deceased over a two-day celebration of life. During the festivities, the living gathers to pay their respects, find closure, and honor those that have touched their lives. It may sound sad, and moments can be, but Día de los Muertos is a celebration — filled with costumes, rituals, and memories. This beautiful commemoration gifts the living another day with their beloved and grants the dead another day on earth.
The Days of the Dead, or los Días de los Muertos, are observed annually on the 1st and 2nd of November. Celebrations begin at midnight on October 31st when the gates to heaven first open, allowing the spirits of children to return for el Dia de los Inocentes, or Day of the Children. El Dia de los Inocentes honors children who’ve gone far too soon, allowing them to reconnect with those who’ve outlived them. The following day, November 2nd is Día de los Muertos or All Souls Day. On Día de los Muertos the souls of departed adults return — weary from their difficult journey back to earth. The living welcome their guests of honor with food, drinks, gifts, and celebrations.
Many often assume that Día de los Muertos is the Mexican version of Halloween. However, while both holidays do have some origins from ancient European pagan rituals, Día de los Muertos carries much more cultural significance. Celebrations began some 3,000 years ago in Mexico during pre-Columbian Mesoamerican times. The Toltec, Aztec, and Nahua people believe that death is a continuation of life — not an ending. When someone dies, their soul travels to Chicunamictlán, the Land of the Dead, and only after several years will a soul reach Mictlán, the final resting place. To aid the dead on this long journey, the Nahua people began leaving food, water, and other offerings.
In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors emerged on the shores of Mexico and imparted their traditions on the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica. Their influence altered Mexican culture and Día de los Muertos celebrations forever. Many observers of Día de los Muertos prepare for days, and sometimes weeks, to welcome the departed. Because of Spanish influence, Día de los Muertos was confined to two days — coinciding with Catholicism’s All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Today, Día de los Muertos is a mix of Mesoamerican ritual, Spanish culture, and European religious rites.
Rituals are an integral part of Día de los Muertos celebrations and there are many traditions that have been created over the years. Many of these traditions were created by Mesoamerican indigenous peoples and changed throughout the years by Spanish influence. These rituals and traditions allow people to grieve and celebrate their loved ones.
We’ll explain the cultural significance and history of some of these traditions below.
The ofrenda, or altar, is the focal point of Día de los Muertos. Ofrendas are ritual displays in cemeteries or homes that welcome the dead with offerings. People decorate ofrendas with photos, pan de muerto, candles, and personal items from the departed. Favorite food and drinks are offered to satiate the dead on their journey. Offerings of marigold flowers and copal incense are used to guide souls back home. The ritual of constructing an altar, or giving an offering, allows family members to grieve and celebrate a life well-lived.
When you think of Día de los Muertos, Calaveras might come to your mind. These decorative sugar skulls are extremely popular and date back to Mesoamerican times. Originally calaveras were made by hand and from clay, but after colonization the Spanish introduced molding techniques and skulls started being made with sugar instead of clay. The ingredients to create a Calavera are simple enough — powdered sugar, eggs, and lemon juice. Once dry, the Calaveras are decorated in honor of the deceased by writing their name on the forehead of the skull. The calavera is then placed on an ofrenda as an offering to the dead.
Pan de Muerto
Returning from the dead is no easy feat and it definitely stirs up an appetite. Pan de Muerto is a traditional sweet bread made to satiate the hunger of the dead after their journey home. This Día de los Muertos treat is another Mesoamerican tradition that was modified by Spanish cooking styles, but its true origins aren’t known. Pan de Muerto is shaped and decorated with special significance. Often there is a ball on top, which signifies the skull, side stripes represent the bones, and the orange blossom taste is to remember the deceased. Pan de Muerto can come in many shapes and sizes, but this design is the most common.
Día de los Muertos is a social holiday — with parties, parades, and gatherings that go through the night. Revelers wear suits, ornate dresses, and don festive sugar skull makeup for the celebrations. Many people paint their faces like La Catrina, a famous female skeleton. La Catrina is a tall, elegant skeleton with a large hat made of feathers. She was first immortalized this way by artist José Guadalupe Posada in the 1900s to remind people that everyone — no matter your class or the color of your skin — will die. La Catrina teaches us that death, indeed, is the great equalizer.
To prepare for Día de los Muertos, family and friends clean their loved ones’ gravesites to show respect. Weeds are replaced with ofrendas, candles, flowers, and favorite foods of the dead. Marigolds, known as the flower of the dead, are strewn throughout the cemetery to guide spirits home. Papel Picado, a Mexican papercraft, is hung to represent the fragility of life. On the night of October 31st, people begin holding cemetery vigils to welcome spirits home. During vigils, family and friends reminisce and reunite with lost loved ones.
A legacy reflective of your beliefs
Día de los Muertos inspires us to think more deeply about the cycle of life, life after death, and leaving a positive, meaningful legacy. We are grateful for what this teaches us about the rituals that help us remember and memorialize the ones we love.
At Better Place Forests, we accommodate all religious and cultural celebrations at our memorial forests. We understand that your legacy is meant to be shared and celebrated in whatever way is meaningful to you. We can learn a lot from Día de los Muertos and the way it celebrates both life and death.
Día de los Muertos teaches us that our loved ones may be gone, but they’ll always be with us. When we see death as a continuation of life, it becomes easier to accept and plan for it. Artist José Guadalupe Posada, who created La Catrina’s likeness, once said that “Death is democratic.” Someday each of us will pass away and become skeletons like La Catrina. Until then, once a year we can reconnect, reminisce, and grieve those who’ve gone before us on Día de los Muertos.