Home Curriculum Vitae Publications Conference Reports Forthcoming Extramural Colloquia Expert Testimony Teaching Healthcare The Human Ecology of Memory Research Archive Publications and Reports Rants

Dia de Los Muertos

(The Day of the Dead)

In Meso-American culture, the period from October 31 (Halloween) through November 1 (All saints' Day) to November 2 (All Souls Day, or Dias de los Muertos, the Days of the Dead) is marked by a uniquely colorful religious festival that celebrates the cycle of life by simultaneously honoring ancestors by creating offrendas and redecorating gravesites in cemeteries) and mocking death (with toy skeletons and candy skulls).  The Day of the Dead has its origins in the ancient civilizations that preceded the Spanish Conquest and the arrival of Christianity. The families of the deceased often construct offrendas, or offerings, in their homes or the cemetery.  Typically decorated with artificial flowers, they also contain photographs of the departed loved one, personal items, and holiday foods (such as pan de muerto, or Day of the Dead bread).  Like the memory tables offered by North American funeral parlors, they are opportunities to reminisce about the departed person. 

From 2009 on, Mexico commemorated the Days of the Dead with sets of postage stamps depicting traditional decorations and other aspects of the holiday (images reproduced from the  American Philatelist, September 2016).




...are rooted in an indigenous people's belief that beginning on October 31 and continuing through November 2nd, the dead visit the living.  To welcome the dead as honored guests, families in Mexico create ofrendas or memory tables with personal effects, food and drink which the departed enjoyed during their time on earth.  The ofrendas or memory tables unite family and loved ones to reflect about their own lives.  Since the 1970s, the tradition of Dias de los Muertos ofrendas and memory tables has re-established links between Mexican American families  and their historical and cultural roots, as well as making statements concerning important issues

The origins of Dias de los Muertos lie predominantly in Mexico where life and death were perceived to be in close relations, one a consequence of the other.  Based on observations of nature, indigenous people believed that the survival of all living things depends on how life and death interact.  Today, you will see other cultures join those of the indigenous in celebration of Dias de los Muertos to honor their loved ones or voice a cause because of death.

Some of the items you will find on ofrendas or memory tables to honor ancestors may be:

Candles: light the way for the spirits to the ofrenda
Incense: symbol of transformation of matter into spirit
Copal: sacred incense of the indigenous people
Bread of the Dead: nourishment of the soul
Water: after a long journey, the soul thirsts
Flowers: symbol of brevity of life and regeneration
Toys: make light of death
Papel Picado: tissue paper cutouts symbolic of fragility of life
Sugar Skulls: reference to honored dead

Adapted from a brochure accompanying the 

Dias de los Muertos exhibit

at the Impulse Gallery, Pittsburgh, California, 2002


                      (91305 bytes)     offrend018.jpg
                      (126663 bytes)

                        (102725 bytes)


                        (92090 bytes)     offrend017.jpg
                        (150623 bytes)

Ritual carpet typical of Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca, Mexico, 

made of various grains, including beans and coffee.

                      (140599 bytes)


Photographs from the 2002

 Day of the Dead exhibit 

at Impulse Gallery, Pittsburgh, Pa.

                      (92212 bytes)
                      (102712 bytes)

                        (25626 bytes)


                        (134671 bytes)

An ofrenda for 9/11.


table001.jpg (30674 bytes)     table022.jpg (36654 bytes)   table005.jpg (25802 bytes)
table015.jpg (18820 bytes)

Memory Tables

Photographs from the 2002

 Day of the Dead exhibit 

at Impulse Gallery, Pittsburgh, Pa.

table010.jpg (32410 bytes)
table013.jpg (33090 bytes)   table014.jpg (23872 bytes)


butterfly006.jpg (26554 bytes)

Butterfly Tree

In Aztec culture, butterflies served as messengers from the living to the dead.  In the exhibit, visitors were encouraged to write the name of a deceased loved one on a paper butterfly, and hang it on the tree.

(In Guatemala, kites serve this purpose)

Photograph from the 2002

 Day of the Dead exhibit 

at Impulse Gallery, Pittsburgh, Pa.



Pan_de_Muerto_Kennedy.jpg (84532 bytes)

Pan de Muerto

Here is a photograph of some pan de muerto, taken from Diana Kennedy's book, Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy (photo by Ignacio Urquiza).  Kennedy writes that pan de muerto is "the semisweet yeast rolls of various sizes made for the Day of the Dead, All saints and All Souuls.  Each one is supposed to represent the soul of a departed family member or friend.  the faces illustrated here were just a few of the hundreds being made by Senora Clementina Banos when I visited her one year at the end of October" (from "The High Art of the Tamale" by Alma Guillermoprieto, reviewing Kennedy's book in the New York Review of Books, 04/28/2011).

The Day of the Dead is discussed by James S. Griffith in his Beliefs and Holy Places: A Spiritual Geography of the Pimeria Alta (University of Arizona Press, 1992; Chapter 5, "The Presence of the Dead").  See also Griffith's Southern Arizona Folk Arts (University of Arizona Press, 1988), where he also discusses the related tradition of nichos (niches), memorials made from cement, bricks, or stones. 

Link to a website selling books and videos concerning the Day of the Dead.

Link to a "Day of the Dead Resource Guide" prepared by haloweencostumes.com.

"The remembrance of the living creates the life of the dead"

Carlos Loarca, artist

Oakland Museum of California, 2002


This page last modified 08/30/2016.