Altar de los Muertos - Street Altar to honor ancestors on the Day of the Dead. (©georgefery.com)


The celebrated Mexican Day of the Dead means one thing for city dwellers and quite another for country folks. It is a day dedicated to the bittersweet remembrance of departed family members. It also is a joyful day for many, celebrating those ancestors who left behind a life enjoyed by their descendants.

This family affair takes place over two days, traditionally the 1 st and 2 nd day of November. The 1 st day celebrates the souls of children and young adults, and is called the Day of the Little Angels , or Day of the Innocents , when the family brings toys and tears to the grave. The 2 nd day is the Day of the Dead ( Dia de Muertos) and is dedicated to adults. In the Americas ancestor worship is a tradition that spans thousands of years, with roots stretching from Peru’s earliest cultures to late Aztec times in Mexico.

Day of the Dead Offerings

Traditionally in northern Mexico, on the first day of celebration in the afternoon, private altars with ofrendas, or offerings are set up in homes, businesses, and public places, to honor adults that have passed away, a testimony to their support of the living immediate and extended family.

Offerings are from the living to past souls, while the altar is dedicated to saints of the creed. Altars are typically made up of seven levels, representing the layers through which souls are believed to travel to reach the underworld, before ascending to rest in peace, in the paradise of the creed.

Altar de los Muertos – Street Altar to honor ancestors on the Day of the Dead. (©georgefery.com)

A profusion of flowers to attract the souls of the dead, is the hallmark of the Dia de los Muertos , as are fresh edible products, tokens of enduring perpetuation of life. Among flowers is the yellow marigold called cempuazutchil in nahualt, the Aztec language that means ‘twenty flowers’. It is also called Flower of the Dead , since they are thought to attract souls and their bright petals, with a strong scent, are believed to guide souls back to their grave, their last family home.

In Aztec times the celebration took place in August; November 1 st is the All Saints Day that came from Catholic Spain. The red cockscomb and the white baby’s breath are for the clouds, among others. The yellow color is for the earth and white for heaven.

The color purple, together with the smoke of copal incense is to attract visiting spirits. The photo of an ancestor is sometimes seen among the fruits and flowers of the earth, a reminder of the eternal return of life.

In cities, for the first two days of remembrance, family members attend church service and pray for the souls of those family members that passed away. They then visit the cemetery to clean and freshen up the grave made of a concrete slab and a small structure with a cross, or symbol of another creed.

At such time it is customary to eat and drink the favorite foods of the departed next to the grave, in bitter-sweet remembrance, with stories of the soul’s past that will sadden or uplift family spirits with cries of joy.

The Mausoleums of Ancestors

In small towns such as Pomuch, in Hecelchakán municipality, in Mexico, the Day of the Dead in the Maya Yucatec language is called Hanal Pixán , that means Food for the Souls . The local custom calls for the bones of select ancestors to be housed in small colorful concrete mausoleums.

In the structure are housed small wood crates, about 2 feet x 3 feet x 2 feet (0.61 meters x 0.91 meters x 0.61 meters), in which are saved the bones of important ancestors. As a rule, the box is lined with a fine hand embroidered cloth, sometimes with the name of the departed, but always with flowers.

Ancestors remains’ crates. (©georgefery.com)

Ancestors remains’ crates. (©georgefery.com)

This tradition is very much like that of ancient second burial practices found in many cultures throughout the world and history, well documented in the Americas. The primary burial addresses the decomposition of soft tissues of the body.

After two to three years, once decomposition is complete, the bones are removed, cleaned, and saved in a separate but permanent setting. As in past traditions, not all past progenitors qualify as ancestors, only those lineage members that left a significant impact on the family cohesion, resource acquisition, or lineage alliance are worthy of being venerated.

Ancestors’ remains are displayed on the Day of the Dead. (©georgefery.com)

Ancestors’ remains are displayed on the Day of the Dead. (©georgefery.com)

During the visit, the bones are carefully removed from the wood box, one at a time by the descendants while praying or communing with the deceased. They are then gently cleaned with a light brush and returned to the box lined up with a freshly hand embroidered cloth, until the following year’s Hanal Pixán . A special ceremony with the same ritual may also take place for the anniversary of the passing day of the departed.

The significance of the second burial ritual is to overcome social death as opposed to that of the biological. As long as the descendants keep their relationship, through rituals, with the departed, they establish the fact that the ancestor is still not ‘socially dead’, within the family, clan, and society. Second burial, therefore, sanctions the rights of surviving members of the family to socio-economic claims, backed up by the support of ‘living’ ancestors.

Dusting Ancestors’ Bones. (©georgefery.com)

Dusting Ancestors’ Bones. (©georgefery.com)

Sharing the Day of the Dead with Departed Loved Ones

In more traditional villages, such as at San Juan Chamula , Estado Chiapas, in Mexico, the family gathers around the grave, a primary burial made of a dirt mound with a cross at the head. The purpose of this type of grave, not covered by a tombstone, is that family members eat and drink while leaving morsels of foodstuff on the mound. Mezcal, tequila, or other beverages, such as fruit juices or sodas favored by the departed, are sprinkled on the grave.

Ritual sharing of foodstuff and beverages, incantations to the ancestors and to the deities of the culture and creed then takes place. It is believed that the ‘spirit’, sometime called the ‘shadow’ of the food and drink will leach into the grave. What takes place is the ritual sharing with the deceased of the family’s hopes, joys, and concerns, while thanking the departed for their own lives and that of the family or clan.

It needs to be understood here that ‘ spirit’ does not refer to any product or substance. It is the essence of the item and a reflection of the intense emotional commitment of family members to the ritual and to the departed.

At that time are introduced newborn children to the family, the descendants, tangible continuity in the family’s chain of life. Small toys may then be left on the mound for children, or hand tools adults used during their lifetime, bearers of fond remembrance and sadness.

San Juan Chamula Cemetery. (©georgefery.com)

San Juan Chamula Cemetery . (©georgefery.com)

Each province in Mexico, and in other parts of the Americas, have their own traditions and rituals to commemorate the Day of the Dead , that vary between regions and cultures. The common denominator is the respect and affection owed the ancestors, perpetuated by the descendants aware that they are merely a link in the precious chain of life, from grandparents to grandchildren through parents. This awareness is grounded in an age-old stern but inescapable logic: No ancestors > No descendants > No Life!

The Role of Religion in the Day of the Dead

Ancestor veneration is not a substitute to established religion, regardless of creed. The fundamental difference between the role of religion and that of ancestor veneration, is that the first is collective while the second is strictly personal.

In other words, ancestor worship rests solely on the living that acknowledge direct family ascendants, and no one else. While all creeds aim to answer the spiritual needs of a culturally and linguistically homogenous community.

Religion and the Day of the Dead. (©georgefery.com)

Religion and the Day of the Dead. (©georgefery.com)

Ancestor veneration does not exclude religious worship as a communal participation. Antagonism to ancestor worship by the conquerors of the New World led to brutal repression and ensuing fragmentation of societies and their ancestral belief structures. The venerated ancestors, in the past were buried under the floor of the household or in its immediate vicinity, this was relegated by the newcomers to the outskirts of town.

The conception of a collective burial ground or cemetery, away from the heart of the community, was then wholly foreign to pre-Columbian societies. Organized creeds, span space and time, and are found in all parts of the world.

They are the keystones to building stable communities, since religions answer people’s affective state of awareness as a group, a condition that challenges individual willful consciousness. In a not so distant past, it excluded ancestor worship outside of a religious structure because it was then perceived as an individual’s escape from religion, and its potential for socio-cultural fragmentation.

Through all cultures past and present, the common belief at the core of both ancestor worship and creeds, beyond that of social survival, is that it challenges and keeps at bay the dread of oblivion. Together with a secular structure, religions are the corner stone of human communal development.

Within a community and its religious organization, ancestor worship can still have a place, there is no antagonism since belief in either is not mutually exclusive. After all, is not the teaching of the persistence of life, central to both?

The Day of the Dead is about the joyful celebration of life; it may then also be called the Day of the Ancestors.

Day of the Ancestors. (©georgefery.com)

Day of the Ancestors. (©georgefery.com)

Top image: Dia De Muertos. Credit: Yuliya Ochkan / Adobe Stock

All other images author supplied ©georgefery.com.

By George Fery



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