Día de Muertos

Dia de Los Muertos

La Catrina, the modern “Lady of the Dead”

Dia de Muertos

Sugar skulls “calaveras” are representations of deceased

Dia de Muertos

Offerings “ofrendas” are gifts to the deceased

Life Has Meaning Only in View of Death

Death is a Shaman’s main ally. Death puts her whole life and purpose in perspective. Death is the urging force behind her every step. She respects Death, but she is not afraid of Death. She is friends with Death. She invites Death to her home, she celebrates Death, she pokes fun at Death.

So do the people of Mexico who bravely invite death to their homes to join in the beautiful Dia de Los Muertos celebration year after year. They build very colorful and lively altars to honor and celebrate dear ones who have passed away. Death haunts us in the Western society, the society of time starved immortals who prefer to ignore the very existence of death. To us death is a taboo. We know of only one time, the linear time, in which the past is always behind us and the future always ahead of us…. We do not know death, to us death est un inconnu. To us, death has no face.

On the contrary in Mexico, death is an ultimate experience of life, that’s made to seem very approachable. For Mexicans, death does not only have a face, it’s a ‘she’. She evolved from the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl, the guardian of the underworld, to the modern “lady of the dead” La Catrina. An elegantly dressed female skeleton wearing an extravagantly plumed hat, she is a caricature of high society reminding us that we are all equal in the face of death.

Mexican Dia de Muertos altars are very elaborate and full of symbols. They can be made from two, three or seven levels. Levels represent the division between the Earth and skies, the underworld, and the levels that a soul must traverse before reaching heaven. Food is at the center of every altar. Pan de muerto, “bread of dead”, symbolizes the circle of life and union with the dead. Every altar is filled with the offerings ‘ofrendas’ for the deceased, including their favorite food, drinks, cigarettes, chocolate, candy and other items they enjoyed. Sugar skulls “calaveras”,  are representations of the deceased friends and relatives. Eaten by children after the festivities, they are a symbol of the Mexicans’ ability to play with and poke fun at death. Candles, lanterns and orange and yellow flowers are placed on altars to guide the souls of the deceased. Salt and incense ward off the uninvited spirits. At the cemeteries, the living and the souls of the departed feast together, music is played and dances are made to honor the spirits.

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


In 2003 UNESCO distinguished this Indigenous festivity dedicated to the dead as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

9 thoughts on “Día de Muertos

  1. I personal have no fear of death or dying, I never have. However, it fascinates me how when the topic of death breaks into a conversation, smiles drop, eye contact is broken, and feet are shuffled showing great discomfort. I agree with you, that death gives purpose to our lives and that it should be, openly acknowledged and accepted, for death surrounds us on every level, and in every moment of our existence.

    Some people have labelled me odd and even strange for my blatant openness on the subject of death, but for me it is the reverse, not to embrace death is odd for by not doing so we fail to embrace the gift of life.

    Thank you for your recent ‘likes’ on my blog, they have meaning. 🙂


    • I love how in our family we can talk freely about death, and also joke around it. I think it is great when we can express our feelings around death, and our desires around how we would like to depart. But I totally understand what you are talking about… Most people do not want to hear anything about death and dying, and find such talks plain weird. I don’t think there’s anything weird about death. even if it isn’t simple…
      One of the most difficult exercises while studying shamanism were around death. But once we understand that we are constantly dying little deaths in this life time, the ‘death’ seems less big and less scary.
      On another note, I love your posts, they are a quick read and very meaningful. We need more of that 🙂 xox

  2. The monks at the monastery where I work have a saying, “Keep death with you daily.” I think that death is ironically what makes us in life. It’s finality is the answer to the question, “who was she?”

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