Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Family & Relationships

Dia de los Muertos Honors the Lives of Loved Ones.  Here’s How You Can Too.

From  / 
Every year on October 31, Antonio Pazaran and his family set up an altar.

On it, he and his three children place cooking utensils and an apron for his grandmother, who was a whiz in the kitchen; farming tools for his grandfather; and spurs, for his cowboy-loving uncle. They fill the altar with family photos, favorite foods, glasses of water and a perhaps a bottle of tequila, or whatever drinks they relished when living. That way, if the spirits of the family members come to visit the next day, they’ll find plenty of love — and refreshments.

The occasion for the altar is the Mexican holiday called Dia de los Muertos, which translates to Day of the Dead. Celebrations generally begin October 31 and run through November 2. During that time, people like Pazaran, who is director of education at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, celebrate and honor the lives of loved ones, passing stories about them on to the next generation. In addition, the museum hosts different parties and events to educate the public and celebrate those who are gone. “It focuses a lot on gatherings of families and friends to remember our relatives that have passed on to a better existence,” he says. “It’s a way of supporting each other. And it’s also a way of passing down our personal stories from one family member to another.”

The tradition, which has been celebrated since the days of the Aztecs, is popular throughout Mexico, and it’s also celebrated in the homes of Mexican Americans and at museums, schools, restaurants, festivals and community centers around the United States. For those looking to honor those who have died, it’s a tradition to consider bringing into your own family. Here’s how.

Create an altar. Families, like the Pazaran family, come together to create an altar and invite their deceased relatives to visit Nov. 1, which is All Saints’ Day. In making your own altar, add photos and items that were important to the people who died, along with their favorite foods, favorite beverages and water. There’s symbolism there, says Pazaran. “Remember, they’re coming to visit us. They’re coming back and they’re taking this long journey. After a long journey, you’re thirsty so we want to provide them with some water and also we want to provide them with the drinks that they enjoyed,” he says. While creating the altar, share stories about the loved one whom you’re honoring, so that their memory lives on.

Visit the cemetery. In the Mexican tradition, families head to the cemetery on November 2. Pazaran says that in some parts of Mexico, they’ll wash off the graves of their loved ones, put out flowers, lights and photos and enjoy a feast right there in the graveyard. “They stay there all night and they celebrate their family members,” he says, adding that there’s usually a mixture of laughter and tears at the graveyard. “It’s an event that’s happy, it’s sad — it’s life. In order to have a beginning, there’s an end. Some of us leave and then others come in. Even though we remember them, we celebrate them, we love them, and we still miss them – and that’s part of life,” says Pazaran.

Make a sugar skull. Sugar skulls, called calaveras, are a kind of folk art in Mexico, and symbolize the holiday’s connection to Mesoamerican civilization, and a time when the skull was a constant image. But this skull is made of sweet sugar and formed to look like a happy face, with bright colors. It pays tribute to the sadness of death, while also celebrating the joyfulness of a life. In Mexico, Pazaran says there are mountains of the skulls at the local markets, ranging in size from a ping pong ball to a soccer ball. “It’s a beautiful tradition,” he says. You can make your own by following a recipe like this

If you’ve never celebrated Dia de Los Muertos, think about bringing parts of it into your life. The messages of the holiday are a wonderful way to honor those you love, even after they’re gone. “We’re able to remember them and continue to tell their story, because once you stop telling their story, once you stop actually thinking about them, then the idea is that now they’re really gone,” says Pazaran. “So the more we celebrate them and the more we remember them, they’re still going to continue to be with us.”

Read More In Family & Relationships

It's time to stop worrying about getting old and start enjoying it.
Get Oldspired →