My father died when I was a little girl, and for decades, because of what had become the American culture’s view of death, I was scared of the very word “death.” Spoken in hushed terms, I was sure death was a final ending only to be considered in solitude and silence. In more recent years, I’ve come to learn this is not true.

There is a Mexican celebration, officially on November 2, known as “Day of the Dead” or Día de los Muertos. My interest comes from my experience with my father’s passing, and from my role as caregiver, assisting loved ones at their time of passing. To be clear, Day of the Dead is not a Mexican Halloween. It is a celebration that remembers the dead and in turn, helps ensure we are less fearful of death and dying.

(Photo Credit – Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Day of the Dead festivities unfolds over two days filled with color, skulls, costumes, made-up faces; parties; and dancing. These days honor and respect deceased loved ones. To welcome spirits back, ofrenda (altars) display photos, crosses, candles, incense, and flowers. The holiday came to be because the Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people wished to honor the dead by recognizing them as still being part of the community, alive in the hearts of those on Earth.

La Calavera Catrina (The Elegant Skeleton) is a popular upper-class portrayal of symbolizing that we are all equal in death.

Photo credit Valeria Almaraz on Unsplash 

Added to the ofrenda are the favorite foods of the deceased. Typical offerings include Pan de muerto or bread of the dead, which is an eggy, sweet bread with anise seeds; often decorated with candied bones and skulls, and teardrops made from the dough. It is believed that when the spirit returns on the Day of the Dead, it will be nourished by the bread.

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Drinks are a sweet fermented beverage called pulque, made from the sap of agave plant. Or hot spiced cocoa representing spirits and seen as a way to make the path to the afterlife easier. There may be a thin, warm porridge served, made from corn flour, vanilla, unrefined sugar, and cinnamon.

Traditional “sugar skulls,” which were added to the celebrations by 17th-century Italian missionaries, come in all sizes and shapes and extravagantly decorated with vibrant, colorful smiles. They represent the departed soul. Often the name of the deceased is written on the forehead of the sugar skull.

Through the use of amplified whimsy, Day of the Dead celebrates death as a continuing part of life.