TULUM, Mexico – In pre-Hispanic times, the veneration of death was a fundamental element of the culture. When someone passed away, they were wrapped in a woven mat (petate) and their family organized a celebration to guide their departed loved one on their journey to Mictlán. Food that the deceased enjoyed in life was also placed in the celebration, with the belief that they might feel hunger.
The indigenous perspective of the Day of the Dead involves the temporary return of the souls of the departed. These spirits come back to their homes, to the world of the living, to reunite with their family, and to nourish themselves with the essence of the offerings placed on altars in their honor.
In this Day of the Dead celebration, death doesn’t represent an absence but a vivid presence; it is a symbol of life materialized on the altar. This is a celebration with significant popular and philosophical meaning, transcending from pre-Hispanic times to the harmonious blend of Catholic rituals brought by the Spanish and the indigenous commemoration of the Day of the Dead.
The ancient Mexicas, Mixtecs, Texcocans, Zapotecs, Tlaxcaltecs, Totonacs, and other native peoples of Mexico adapted the veneration of their departed to the Christian calendar, coinciding with the end of the corn harvest, a staple crop in the country.
The celebration of the Day of the Dead takes place on November 1st and 2nd, divided into categories: November 1st corresponds to All Saints’ Day, dedicated to the “little dead,” or children, while November 2nd is for All Souls’ Day, honoring adults.
Families create offerings and decorate altars with marigold flowers, paper cutouts, sugar skulls, pan de muerto (bread of the dead), mole, or dishes their deceased relatives enjoyed. Just as in pre-Hispanic times, incense is burned to fragrance the area.
In addition, the festivities involve adorning graves with flowers and often creating altars on the tombstones. This tradition, rooted in indigenous beliefs, was thought to guide the souls on a proper journey after death.
To ease the return of these souls to the earthly realm, marigold petals are scattered and candles are placed, marking the path for these spirits to follow, ensuring they don’t lose their way and reach their destination. In ancient times, this path extended from families’ homes to the cemeteries where their loved ones rested.
The Day of the Dead is celebrated throughout Mexico, with some regional variations. In Mexico City’s Tláhuac district, the small town of Mixquic, meaning “where there is mesquite,” is one of the most visited places during these days. Its celebration adheres to Mexican traditions and is combined with the town’s fair. On November 2nd, “La Alumbrada” takes place, where thousands of candles illuminate the decorated graves with flowers.
Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s culturally rich states, hosts one of the most significant Day of the Dead celebrations. Altars are adorned with white tablecloths or paper cutouts and are divided into tiers, each with special significance. The first tier represents grandparents and adults, while the second and subsequent tiers are for others. During this festival, numerous exhibitions can be experienced in Oaxaca.
Other noteworthy states and places in Mexico during this celebration include Janitzio and Pátzcuaro in Michoacán, Xochimilco in Mexico City, and Cuetzalán in Puebla, to name a few.
It’s worth mentioning that in 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared this celebration an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, recognizing its importance as a living and contemporary traditional expression that is inclusive, representative, and community-based. For UNESCO, this annual encounter between indigenous peoples and their ancestors holds significant social value by affirming the individual’s role in society and strengthening the cultural and social status of Mexico’s indigenous communities.
The Day of the Dead is a celebration of memory and a ritual that prioritizes remembrance over forgetfulness. In Mexico, the celebration varies from state to state, from municipality to municipality, and from town to town. However, throughout the country, it shares the common principle of bringing families together to welcome their loved ones returning from beyond the veil.