Lifestyle & Belief

Day of the Dead brings life to Mexico cemeteries (PHOTOS)


A miniature tomb put by a relative over the grave of a loved one at the San Jose cemetery in Mexico City's Santiago neighborhood. Nov. 1, 2011.


Alfredo Estrella

GUADALAJARA, Mexico — Mexican families flocked to cemeteries across the country Friday to visit the graves of dead relatives on “Dia de los Muertos,” or Day of the Dead.

The traditional festival traces its origins back to the Aztecs and is a day for families to remember their deceased loved-ones — but it is far from being a somber occasion.

At the Cementerio Mezquitan in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city, there was a carnival-like atmosphere as mariachis performed music for the dead, relatives decorated headstones with brightly colored paper cuts, children played between graves and families sat on tombs chatting.

Relatives swept and scrubbed clean the gravesites of their dead loved-ones before saying prayers and leaving offerings of fresh flowers, candy skulls and food. At one grave, relatives left behind two cigarettes, a small bottle of Coca-Cola and a bottle of the deceased’s favorite alcoholic drink.

As well as visiting the graves, some families also build elaborate alters in their homes and set places at their dining tables for the spirits of their loved ones to return and join them for a meal.

For Leonardo Miramontes Ramirez, Day of the Dead is also a time to make money. Ramirez and his wife Luz Amada Maciel Becerra have a stall in Parque Morelos, in the center of Guadalajara, where they sell tiny clay skeleton figurines. The whimsical hand-made skeletons represent a wide range of professions, including dentists, mechanics, musicians, teachers, photographers and footballers, and are macabre presents for the living.

“In Mexico everyone makes jokes about death,” Ramirez told GlobalPost, estimating he had sold 1,000 figurines in the past four days. Other stallholders sell white candy skulls, candy coffins, skeleton toys, paper cuts, and chocolate Grim Reapers, as well as candy pumpkins and witches' hats for Halloween, which falls two days before Day of the Dead.

But for many Mexicans, Day of the Dead is just an excuse to spend time with (living) relatives and friends, eat traditional food such as Pan de Muertos, and party.

“It is a beautiful tradition but I only celebrate it by eating the (Pan de Muertos) and drinking hot chocolate,” Maria Ines Valdez told GlobalPost.

For many others, the festival is a painful reminder of their relatives who have disappeared amid a wave of drug-related violence. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission says 24,000 people were reported missing between 2000 and mid-2012, the Associated Press reported. Nearly 16,000 bodies remain unidentified.

In some parts of the country, where the Day of the Dead traditions are very strong, relatives will spend the night at the graves of their loved ones to greet the spirits when they return.

The food offerings will ensure they have enough energy to make it back to the other side — until next year.