Mexican Day of the Dead Customs

All about Dia de Muertos

Day of the Dead Figure

John & Lisa Merrill / Getty Images

The Mexican celebration of Day of the Dead is far from a lugubrious ritual of ancestor worship or veneration; it is, rather, a yearly commemoration of—and opportunity for fellowship with—the spirits of deceased family members and friends.

Known in Spanish as el Dia de Muertos (colloquially shortened to Muertos in everyday conversation), it is actually a celebration that lasts at least two days. November 1 is All Saints Day in the Catholic Church, and this is when deceased children are honored and remembered. November 2, All Souls Day, is for the remembrance of the adult dead.

How Is Day of the Dead Celebrated in Mexico?

Present-day Muertos, celebrated mostly in central and southern Mexico where the indigenous influence is strongest, is a rich mixture of pre-Hispanic and Catholic elements. The original inhabitants of the lands that now make up Mexico remembered their dead at a different time of the year; with their domination by the Spanish, the date was changed to the beginning of November and many motifs were added.

Though the occasion falls near the date of American Halloween, Mexican Muertos is not at all scary, spooky, or somber. The day can be bittersweet, reflective, playful, or cheerful—and is frequently all of these at once. People often visit cemeteries at this time, cleaning and adorning the tombs of their dearly departed. Vendors set up stands in plazas and around in the vicinity of cemeteries to sell decorations and flowers for the gravesites, as well as food and candy for the living. Local bands wander around, ready to be hired to play music for the deceased and their families. The atmosphere is festive.

The spirits of the deceased are thought to pay a visit to the living every year at Día de Muertos, and their families prepare an altar, or table of welcome, for them in the home.

The Day of the Dead Altar

Days or even weeks before Muertos, a prominent space in each family’s house is cleaned up and the usual furniture is removed to make room for the altar. The altar consists of, at a minimum, a covered table or clearly demarcated space on the floor; often a few crates or boxes are added to it and covered to create open shelves and other raised display areas.

The altar coverings can be made of cloth, paper, plastic, or natural materials, and vary widely from plain white to vibrant colors and intricate patterns. The main colors of the season are bright purple, pink, orange, and yellow.

The altar table is set with ofrendas (offerings) for the spirits of the beloved deceased who will be visiting.

Collective altars, the work of many people who donate their time, talent, and goods, are often also set up in public buildings or plazas, schools, and workplaces. 

Las Ofrendas

The traditional offerings placed on the altar for Muertos vary from place to place, but usually consist of some or all of the following:

  • Candles, often one for each family member.
  • Photographs of the deceased.
  • Flowers, especially bright yellow-orange (a species of marigold), which is the flower most associated with this day. Other flowers, usually purple and white, are also common.
  • Papel picado, traditional cut tissue paper decorations, in bright colors.
  • Incense or copal, a resin that produces an aromatic smoke when burned.
  • Skulls (calaveras) or full skeletons, made from paper mache, clay, or an edible substance such as sugar, chocolate, or amaranth. 
  • Fruits, vegetables, grains, and prepared foods such as pan de muerto (bread), candied pumpkin, mole, and/or the favorite dishes of the dearly departed.
  • Religious items such as crucifixes, rosaries, and statues or pictures of saints (especially ones to which the deceased were devoted). Flowers, candles, fruits, and other items are also often placed in the shape of a cross.
  • Objects symbolizing the four elements of nature: earth, wind, water, and fire. These are represented by movable or light-weight items such as papel picado (wind,) a bowl of water, candles (fire), and food (crops, earth.)
  • Items the traveling spirit can use to clean up after the journey, such as a washbasin, water, soap, and razors.
  • Personal belongings for each person and any other objects the deceased may enjoy, such as a toy (for a child) or a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of tequila.