Day of the Dead

I received an email from one of the readers of the site asking about the Day of the Dead rituals that occur here in Mérida. She was wondering if it mirrored the traditional practices that take place throughout the country, or if there was a certain Yucateco twist to the holiday. Not being one to disappoint, I decided to give what insight into the event that I have in this post:

First of all, one needs to be clear about the Day of the Dead as it is traditionally celebrated. Throughout Mexico, the first two days of November are a national holiday during which the country remembers their deceased relatives. The first day is a day set aside to remember the deceased children and the second is “El Dia de Todos Los Santos” or the Day of the Dead proper. During these days, altars are made in homes with pictures of the dead relative along with those things that would have been special to the person during their lives: a sweater, a jacket, a picture or possibly a toy for a child. Also, the deceased’s favorite foods would be on display with the idea that, during these days, the relative would visit to be with the family and partake of the meal there on the altar.

During this time as well, there is much attention given to the family gravesite where flowers are placed and the debris that have collected during the year are cleaned away. One Maya village takes this idea of cleaning to the extreme, and actually exhumes the dried bones of relatives that have been dead for 3 years, cleaning them and placing them on display in boxes. The ritual is detailed in this Yahoo news article

Also, it is said that, during the day of the dead proper, the family gathers at the gravesite in order to enjoy a meal with the dead relative. I tried to witness this tradition, stopping by the General Cemetery here in Mérida, but, possibly because of the rain, I found only a few families placing flowers.

Here in Mérida, there is another holiday celebrated during the same time called El Hanal Pixan. It is a ceremony that predates the arrival of the Spanish and also honors those family members who have died. The picture above, from the local paper Diario de Yucatan shows girls dressed in the traditional Maya “huipil” making tortillas in front of an altar constructed in order to celebrate this event.

We’ve found it hard to experience this holiday living the midst of an evangelical society that has rejected its practice, but I find myself personally torn by this rejection. On one hand, the worship of dead loved ones as a way of receiving favors for ourselves with God or as a way of helping them somehow reach eternal rest are ideas that I reject as being groundless biblically, but the Bible does not consider our loved ones as dead to us. Paul states that to die to be with Christ, and that our spirits continue to live after our physical deaths. Hebrews chapter 12 states that the saints (believers) who have died form a kind of “cloud of witnesses” that seem to cheer us on in our own Christian walk. So in this sense, our struggle to try to forget our dead loved ones seems as well to be a bit unbiblical. I still haven’t had enough exposure to the rituals involved to make an unbiased judgment. So I’ll save any conclusion for much later. Of course this could be something to talk out in the comments section!

So there you have it, a bit of a survey of what went on during this past week as Mexico and the Yucatan celebrated the Day of the Dead. Next year, we’ll hope to be more on top of the action so that you can see more of the sights, and possibly sounds of the season.

Update 11/10/2006: For more about Day of the Dead around the missionary world, see this feature post on Missionary Blog Watch.

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  1. honhol’s avatar

    Love your post. And I totally respect you not stating your opinion on the matter. I know it’s tricky. Honestly, I love the fact that they set aside the day to remember their dead loved ones. I love that they prepare their favorite foods and talk about them and even decorate their graves. Children from a very young age are taught to have fun with the idea of death and to even embrace it. So different from the American culture! Did you know that some people who celebrate this holiday believe the spirits of the dead loved ones come back to celebrate the day with them. They believe the food left on the altars grow stale and the pop goes flat because the spirits have ingested the flavors of the food. Just like every holiday, I suppose you can embrace some of the concepts and leave out others. I told my family that next year I would actually like to celebrate this holiday just so we can take time to remember and talk about our grandparents and parents, cook some of their favorite meals, bring out their favorite gadgets, look at pictures, and just remember them. How nice for the Mexicans that they know they will be remembered and honored each year on that special date. Thanks for your thoughtful and informative post. Love the pictures too!

  2. honhol’s avatar

    Sorry for posting again, but I was just rereading you blog and had missed this point where you say,
    “On one hand, the worship of dead loved ones as a way of receiving favors for ourselves with God or as a way of helping them somehow reach eternal rest are ideas that I reject as being groundless biblically, but the Bible does not consider our loved ones as dead to us.” I had never heard that this was about the worship of loved ones or helping them reach eternal rest. In all my little videos I show my students and personal research, I’ve only heard it being about honoring and remembering the dead loved ones. Is this something somebody there told you or did you read it somewhere? Very interesting!

  3. Dave’s avatar


    Thanks for your comments. In regards to your question, I guess that my reasoning took a bit of a turn from talking specifically about Day of the Dead to practices to talking about practices associated with Latin American spirituality in general, although it seems to state in the Yahoo article that the Mayan practice of cleaning the bones of their dead relatives has some bearing on their eternal destiny.

    I simply wanted to make a comparison between the practices that I considered to be in error in this area of the world and the way in which we seem to err in the remembrance of our relatives in the states.

  4. mikegodz’s avatar


    We had our own little Day of the Dead altar on campus @ American University. I didn’t take a picture (I need to remember I have a camera phone.) but it was erected in the Student Center and was dedicated to Steve Irwin which is a bit surprising since I don’t think he has any Latin roots.

    I guess with 145 nations represented on campus, I should be surprised to get a taste of Mexico.

  5. Michelle’s avatar

    this was informative and interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Trudy’s avatar

    I have been blessed enough to have witnessed Day of the Dead celebrations in various cities around Mexico. The most elaborate graves that I have seen are in the state of Oaxaca. The celebration lasts a week. It is a beautiful time to be in Mexico and I have even witnessed families who camp out all night in the cemetery with candles lit and meals prepared graveside, in anticipation of welcoming the spirits of their family members on their visits home. Unlike Halloween, in the States, this holiday is reverent and family and community centered. It is a time to share stories, beautify the community, remember the deceased, and to keep love alive.

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