Baylor Expert: Día De Los Muertos - A Celebration of Life and DeathJuly 21, 20233 min read
Día De Los Muertos – or Day of the Dead – has grown in popularity in the United States over the past decade, with the 2017 Disney/Pixar film, Coco, bringing greater attention to the holiday and its colorful sugar skulls and skeleton decorations. Although these decorations can be found in stores next to Halloween items, this unique Mexican holiday – celebrated Nov. 1 through Nov. 2 – isn’t another version of Halloween but a way for families to honor and remember their loved ones who have died, said Baylor University death studies scholar and author Candi Cann, Ph.D. It’s importance to world culture as recognized in 2008 when UNESCO inscribed the holiday in the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Cann, who is an associate professor of religion in the Honors College at Baylor, said it’s not surprising that the holiday is becoming popular outside of Mexico. There are no other traditions in the United States about death that are not mournful. The opportunity to celebrate loved ones in a way beyond the funeral process resonates with people, Cann said.
“It’s a beautiful tradition that helps people with the grief process,” she said.
Día De Los Muertos is time for past and present generations to come together. Unlike Halloween, interacting with the dead isn’t scary, but more like a family reunion, Cann said.
“On that day, the dead return to visit the living,” she said. “It is a time to have fun and celebrate our connection to our ancestors.”
Traditional Día De Los Muertos Celebrations can include:
Calaveras – The most recognized symbol of the holiday, sugar skulls are offered as gifts to both the living and the dead. A representation of the La Calavera Catrina, the skulls are decorated with colorful icing, sequins or feathers.
The Ofrenda – Families will set up altars in their house or at the grave site to honor their family members. The Ofrenda is colorfully decorated with pictures of the deceased along with paper banners, candles, marigolds, small gifts, favorite foods and calaveras.
Costumes – Colorful costumes with vibrant skull makeup reminiscent of the Calaveras are another way to celebrate Día De Los Muertos. Children and adults alike can dress up in Calaveras makeup. The purpose is not to look macabre but to be a festive way to celebrate all members of the family living and dead.
Food and Drink – This not only is an offering to the deceased but a way for the living to come together and share a meal with their loved ones. Traditional dishes included tamales, Pan de Muerto (or “Bread of the Dead”) and Pan dulce.
Cann suggests if you are interested in celebrating Día De Los Muertos, start by finding a community festival or parade, such as Saturday’s Día De Los Muertos Parade & Festival at Indian Spring Park in downtown Waco.
“This is a great way to learn more about the holiday and how you can celebrate with your family,” Cann said. “Most importantly, keep the focus on the family. The heart of the holiday is on remembering and honoring our loved ones.”
Candi Cann, Ph.D. Associate Professor, Baylor Interdiscipinary Core and Religion
Expert on death, dying and grief, diversity in death and the intersection of death and technology around the world