Honoring the Dead

Clients shouldn’t miss this special celebration

By: Maribeth Mellin

Flower stalls throughout Mexico do a brisk business as Halloween nears. Shoppers depart with arm loads of marigolds, gladioli and baby’s breath. Dulcerias (candy shops) display sugar skulls dripping with icing and glitter. Bakers produce endless loaves of pan de los muertos (bread of the dead). Calacas (skeletons) pop up everywhere. Costumes and candy are common as well, but trick or treating is not the main event. From Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, the dead souls of Mexico are celebrated with their own holiday, called Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).

I first caught a glimpse of this extraordinary tradition several decades ago in La Paz, where I spotted two giant skeletons in a small park near the waterfront. The next year, I walked among ofrendas (altars) in Merida’s parks and saw how families honor their ancestors. I’ve since discovered Day of the Dead celebrations everywhere from Tijuana to Cancun. I’ve seen skeletons decked out with snorkels and masks in Cozumel and witnessed nightlong family gatherings at cemeteries in Oaxaca and the Yucatan. If you have clients traveling in Mexico at the end of October, tell them to check out cemeteries and museums for a glimpse into the Mexican celebration of death.

Welcoming the Departed

Mexican writer Octavio Paz once said death “burns the lips” of the inhabitants of New York, London or Paris. “The Mexican, on the other hand, frequents it, ridicules it, fondles it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. It is one of his favorite toys and his most permanent love.”

Skulls and skeletons abound in folk art and are vividly depicted in pottery, papier mache and tissue-paper banners called papeles picados. Miniature skeletons ride bicycles, type on computers and stand upon wedding cakes in tiny dioramas. The whole concept of death is treated with humor and irony.

On All Souls and All Saints days, however, death is approached with loving respect. The dead are invited into homes of their relatives and friends, and in some parts of Mexico are encouraged to hang around until the end of November. Altars are assembled with pictures of the deceased, flowers, candles, incense, traditional foods and special treats beloved by the departed a pack of cigarettes or bottle of pulque, perhaps. Some cultures sprinkle a trail of flower petals leading to the front door, so the spirits can find their way. Some hang dishes with food on trees outside the house, so that those souls who have no living relatives will not be forgotten. Public altars appear in museums, churches, plazas and parks.

Famous Day of the Dead celebrations are held in Michoacan and Oaxaca, where tour companies book the most desirable hotels a year in advance. The Purepecha Indians of Michoacan have learned to save their most sacred traditions for the hours near dawn, when they are granted a bit of privacy. Their altars and cemeteries on Janitzio in Lake Patzcuaro have become so famous crowds of sightseers literally walk on the graves at midnight to take in the view of candlelit boats floating on the lake. Villages throughout the Patzcuaro region conduct elaborate ceremonies. Several tour companies and hotels in the area guide clients away from the crowds to lesser known cemeteries where families greet the spirits of their loved ones in relative peace.

One of my first Day of the Dead experiences occurred on a whim during a business trip in Mexico City, when I hired a driver to take me 25 miles southeast to Mixquic. Though not as well known as Janitzio, Mixquic is a traditional village once inhabited by the Aztecs and the Spanish conquistadors.

I arrived at about 10 p.m. and found the sidewalks and pavement packed with locals and tourists wandering among vendors selling elaborate skeleton drawings and figurines, along with fireworks and flowers. A cloud of sweet copal incense hung over the church cemetery, where families gathered around graves cleaned and covered with photos, votive candles and favorite foods.

My driver insisted we leave around 2 a.m. when traffic was still bumper-to-bumper and children wearing Halloween costumes ran from car to car seeking treats. I could have stayed all night.

The following year I spent an entire night at Oaxaca’s San Miguel Cemetery, wandering among tombstones, leaving flowers on those lacking attention and joining family celebrations. One group offered me a glass of tequila; hours later I was still sitting by the grave of someone I’d never known, listening to teenagers playing guitars, playing peek-a-boo with sleepy toddlers and chatting with grandmothers who plied me with tamales and homemade candies. During the day I dined at a cafe by the main plaza, sampling the outstanding black mole traditionally prepared around Day of the Dead. My suitcase was full of skeletons and skulls when I left for home.

Unfortunately, I won’t make it to any of the famous Day of the Dead regions this year. I will be in Los Cabos, however, even in this modern Mexican resort I’ll see elaborate altars in hotels and folk art shops, and visit cemeteries with people from throughout Mexico who have made the tip of Baja their home.

Your clients can have similar experiences. Tell them to visit markets and museums and ask for directions to the local cemetery. They are sure to experience memorable moments, and just might come home with a skeleton or two and plans for a trip to Michoacan or Oaxaca next year.


Plan trips well in advance for clients who wish to experience the Day of the Dead in Michoacan, Yucatan, Oaxaca, Veracruz, Chiapas and other regions with traditional celebrations. Many of the hotels in those areas offer tours to cemeteries with excellent local guides.

The Mexico Tourism Board offers more information on Day of the Dead festivities.