Life in Mexico: Day of the Dead

“The Mexican is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it—it is one of his toys and his most steadfast love.” – Octavio Paz

When the gates of heaven open at midnight on All Hallows’ Eve, los angelitos (the little angels) return home for their annual visit. They will spend November 1 with family and loved ones, devouring sugar skulls and candied pumpkin. Then on November 2, the souls of the adult ancestors take the place of los niños as the guests of honor.

Sugar skull face paint
Sugar skull face paint for Day of the Dead

Born out of the clash between Aztec ritual and Spanish colonialism more than 500 years ago, this important Mexican celebration contains elements of both Paganism and Christianity. Conjuring up dead ancestors, cooking favorite foods to serve at their graves and creating elaborate private shrines decorated with dancing skeletal figures may seem, to some, a tad ghoulish. But it doesn’t end there.

Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), observed in Mexico from October 31–November 2, is not just a celebration for the dead—it is a celebration with the dead.

Oaxaca Day of the Dead
Relatives decorate and visit graveyards for Day of the Dead

A topic largely avoided in the West, death has always been front and center among diverse cultures around the world. Remembering the deceased is routinely marked by lighting candles and presenting offerings of food and drink. The ancient Egyptians honored departed souls during the great festival of Osiris and, to this day, lavish food offerings are made to returning Chinese spirits during the full and new moons of their ‘Ghost Month’.

Fiesta of the Dead

When the Spaniards invaded Mexico in 1519 (coming ashore at what is now Veracruz), they encountered a culture vastly different from their own. Far from believing death was the end of life, the Aztecs (and Mayans, for that matter) believed it a continuation of life—and embraced it wholeheartedly.

Catrina Jose Posada
La Calavera de la Catrina (the skull of the rich woman)

Early 1900s Mexican illustrator José Guadalupe Posada created a famous print of a figure he called La Calavera de la Catrina (the skull of the rich woman). Posada’s Catrina figures often are a prominent part of modern Day of the Dead observances, and Mexican art in general.

Modern Day Catrina
Modern Day Catrina at Day of the Dead festivities

Food of the Dead

Foods for Day of the Dead include pan de los muertos (bread of the dead), which is rich cake-bread festooned with the shapes of skulls and crossbones, and often, red food coloring to mimic blood. Buena suerte—good luck—is said to come to the one who bites into the plastic toy skeleton hiding in each loaf.

Sugar skulls, often embellished with the departed’s name, and chocolate coffins are plentiful on November 1 (the day of Los Angelitos), along with miniature pan de los muertos, and other ‘kiddie meal’ size dishes. On November 2, rich traditional meals—tamales, mole, enchiladas—are served as the adult spirits arrive for a day of feasting and reminiscing. The menu is based on the culinary preference of the dearly departed.

Day of the Dead Bread
Pan de los muertos – Day of the Dead Bread with marigolds
Would you like to make your own dead bread?


1 envelope active dry yeast

1/4 cup warm water

1/2 cup milk

2 beaten eggs

1/4 cup melted butter

3 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 tsp. salt

1 Tbsp. water

egg white

1 Tbsp. granulated sugar


  1. Combine yeast with warm water in a medium bowl and set aside until foamy, about 5 minutes.
  2. Stir in milk, eggs, and melted butter; set aside.
  3. Sift flour, sugar, and salt in a large mixing bowl.
  4. Stir yeast mixture into flour mixture until dough forms. Add a little more flour if the dough is too wet or more milk if it is too dry.
  5. Knead on a lightly floured surface until dough is smooth but slightly sticky, about 10 minutes. Transfer dough to a large, lightly greased bowl. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled – about 1 hour.
  6. Knead dough on a lightly floured surface 3 minutes.

Reserve about 20% of dough for decoration. Preheat oven to 350°.

  1. Shape remaining dough into a round loaf on a prepared baking sheet.
  2. Roll reserved dough into a thick rope, then cut into 5 portions.
  3. Shape one portion into a ball and arrange it on top of the round loaf.
  4. Work the remaining dough into bone shapes. Arrange ”bones” around loaf.
  5. Cover loosely and let it rise in a warm place until doubled, about 30 minutes.
  6. Beat egg white with water, then brush loaf with egg wash and sprinkle with sugar.
  7. Bake 35 minutes or until top is lightly golden brown. Remove to wire rack and cool.

Hotel of the Dead

While the food and specifics will vary from area to area, this is without a doubt one of the most important fiestas in Mexico. And almost all families will begin the holiday with a trip to the cemetery on October 31 at midnight, bringing toys for the children and tequila for the adults (yes, the dead ones).

Day of the Dead Cemetery
Candles and marigolds decorate the graves

In some areas, it is customary to spend the night, where bells are rung for the spirits every 30 seconds from midnight until dawn to ‘wake’ the dead. Gravestones are cleaned and decorated. It’s a huge family reunion, both dead and alive, with hibachis and cooking, drinking, guitar playing with storytelling, and memories shared by the lights of hundreds of candles.

It is the way that the legends and lore of the ancestors stay alive from generation to generation. Sometimes even Mariachi Bands play. But above all, it is a time for reuniting with those who have transcended this lifetime.

Altar of the Dead

Some families construct altars at the graveside, but most are hosted in the home. Boxes of various heights are covered with cloth and arranged on a tabletop—and this is where the offering is made to the spirits to entice them back to visit.

day of the dead altar
Traditional Mexican Day of the dead altar with pan de muerto, marigolds and candles

Marigolds (cempazuchitl) are the official Day of the Dead flower. Their distinctive scent is said to lure the dead. From Christian tradition come the candles, used to light the way for departed souls. There are photographs on the altar to recall the individuals being honored. People, and pets, are welcomed home from the netherworld.

dog day of the dead
Pets are welcomed back during Day of the Dead

A Meal for the Dead

Family members will place a washbasin, towel, soap and mirror nearby so that returning spirits can freshen up after their journey. And set out a typical meal in clay pots—the favorite repast of the deceased—along with fresh drinking water (souls are thirsty after such a long sojourn). And don’t forget the tequila, as a reminder of the fun times here on earth.

Ofrenda Altar for Day of the dead
A home ofrenda, or altar, for Day of the Dead

In Mexico, it is thought that people die three deaths. The first occurs when the body ceases to function, the heart no longer beats and the eyes hold no depth. The second comes when the body is lowered into the ground and given back to Mother Earth. But the third and saddest death of all is when there is no one left to remember.

May your grandchildren, and mine, dance on our graves forever. – Que mis nietos, y los tuyos, bailen sobre nuestras tumbas para siempre.


Day of the Dead Celebrations Around Mexico

  • If you are in San Miguel de Allende, be sure to attend the annual La Calaca Arts Festival. La Calaca will revere and expand sacred traditions and motifs while re-imagining them for the future.
  • In Oaxaca, probably the quintessential Day of the Dead destination, travel guides and hotels arrange trips for guests to local cemeteries.
  • One of the more famous celebrations takes place on the island of Janitzio in Lake Pátzcuaro. Residents decorate boats with candles and flowers and taken to the island’s cemetery, where they spend the night, summoning the dead.
  • In the southern part of Mexico City, there is a classic celebration in the village of San Andrés Mixquic. Bells from the old Augustian Convent ring at 4 PM on the second day of November, calling for a procession to the cemetery.
  • Toluca hosts the annual Feria del Alfeñique which celebrates the art of making candy skulls.
    Sugar Skulls Toluca
    Sugar skulls at the Toluca fair

Where can I buy Day of the Dead merchandise?

I will update this article with a few links to some cool Day of the Dead merch shortly!

Written by Beverley Wood

Beverley Wood has lived on boats in Toronto and Vancouver and in an old hacienda in Mexico. She knows funky when she sees it. She's been writing since she was old enough to pick up a pen and has never shied away from the unusual or the whimsical. Her love of the unique (and sometimes bizarre) led her to Captivatist.