Day of the Dead Traditions
Common Day of the Dead traditions include creating altars to honor the dead, laying out offerings, sharing stories of the deceased, as well as cleaning and decorating gravesites. Because Day of the Dead is a very festive, creative holiday, current Day of the Dead customs also include festivals, parades, and the making of Dia de los Muertos crafts.
Creating an altar is one of the most important Day of the Dead customs
Photo Credit: Carlos Martinez
The key purpose behind these Day of the Dead customs is to make contact with the spirits of the dead, to let them know that they are not forgotten and that their loved ones on earth still care about them. It is a way of keeping the connection between loved ones alive, though they may be physically separated by death.
Day of the Dead traditions can vary from town to town, with each community embracing their own unique blend of rituals, customs, and celebrations. Although the Day of the Dead customs in a small village in Mexico may differ from the Day of the Dead customs in a large American city like San Francisco, there are still several common Day of the Dead traditions that are carried out no matter what the location.
Here are the most common and important Day of the Dead traditions:
- Creating an altar with offerings (known as ofrenda)
- Visiting, cleaning, and decorating gravesites
- Telling stories about the deceased
- Making food for the deceased, to be placed on altars
- Making or buying sugar skulls and pan de muerto
Day of the Dead altars
Day of the Dead altar
Photo credit: mcbarnicle
Creating Day of the Dead altars is one of the most important Day of the Dead traditions. Day of the Dead altars are typically created inside people’s homes to honor the spirits of their deceased loved ones. When Dia de los Muertos is embraced by the community, non-secular altars are also created in schools, government offices, and other community spaces.
Day of the Dead altars are set up on the two days leading up to Dia de los Muertos. Altars contain “offerings” for the dead, known as ofrenda. These include items such as:
- fresh flowers or flowers petals (usually marigolds)
- photographs of the deceased, along with other memorabilia
- the favorite foods and drinks of the deceased (lovingly-prepared)
- sugar skulls
- pan de muerto (bread of the dead)
- statues of saints
- other items
You can click here to learn more about Day of the Dead altars or see an example of how to build your own.
Decorated gravestone in Mexico
Photo credit: Thelmadatter
On the Day of the Dead, many families will congregate in graveyards to clean the graves of their loved ones who have passed. They decorate the graves with Mexican marigolds called cempasúchil, often lovingly arranged into huge arches. The arches and graves are adorned with photos, mementos and gifts, such as the dead person’s favorite foods and drinks. These gifts, or offerings, are meant to attract the dead, helping them find their way back to their loved ones on earth. The burning candles and scent of copal incense also help guide the departed back to earth.
The tradition of grave-cleaning on Dia de los Muertos takes on a festive air. Graveyard picnics are common as people interact with the spirits of the deceased as if they were still alive. These graveyard visits often turn into all-night vigils with candlelit ceremonies and hired bands to play the favorite music of the dead.
The event becomes a social gathering marked by a combination of festivity and introspection, as everyone honors their dead loved ones, communicating with their spirits while reflecting on their own mortality in the circle of life and death.
Sharing Stories about the Deceased
Telling stories by the graves
Photo Credit: Tomascastelazo
Part of honoring the dead is to tell stories about them, such as funny anecdotes or poems that poke fun at their quirks (known as calaveras). It is believed that the dead do not want to be thought of in a sad or somber manner – they want to be remembered and celebrated, since they are still alive just in another form.
Therefore Dia de los Muertos is the right time to poke fun at your late Aunt Maria’s obsession with hair spray or to re-tell that day when Uncle Jose was so drunk he fell into the lake. In fact, you’d even place a can of Aunt Maria’s favorite hairspray on her altar and a bottle of Uncle Jose’s favorite whisky on his altar!
In Mexican culture, these stories form part of each family’s oral tradition, as tales of family members are passed on from generation to generation. It keeps the family history alive.