Children dressed for the Day of the dead festival

Despite its name, Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is far from a macabre festival. Combining pre-Hispanic traditions with Spanish Catholic influence, the Zapotec Indians believed that the spirits of the dead visit the living once a year to eat, drink and be merry.

The spirits of children are thought to return on November 1 (All Saints’ Day), with adult spirits following on November 2 (All Souls’ Day).

In the beautiful city of Oaxaca, the ancient Zapotec capital, the festival involves more ceremony and ritual than in any other part of the country. At the market, women with coloured ribbons woven into their long black plaits sell bunches of sweet-smelling orange marigolds, or cempasúchil. Brightly coloured papel picado – tissue paper cut into intricate designs – is festooned across the walls.

The market aisles are stuffed with skeletons engaged in everyday activities: eating, drinking, working. Stalls are piled high with elaborately decorated sugar skulls and special bread called pan de muerte (bread of the dead), a sweet-tasting roll with a little wooden effigy baked into the dough. In fact, everything that you need to build an altar in honour of the deceased.


The altar is an invitation to the spirits to return and join the celebrations. Most families build an altar in their home; they can range from a simple decorated table, to a towering five-tiered affair, but all have the same basic elements.

First, sugar cane is entwined with cempasúchil and bent into a colourful arch, representing the passage between life and death. The table is covered in a white cloth and banners of papel picado are stuck to its edges.

A picture of the patron saint of Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe, is put on the table-turned-altar, which is loaded with more flowers and gifts, or ofrendas, of food and drink for the family spirits. The food is a feast for the dead to savour, although as spirits only consume the essence of the food, the living get to eat it later.

Every altar has to have a glass of water. Not only because it represents purity but also because the spirits are thirsty after their long journey. And not just for water. Coca-cola, beer and tequila also feature, cigarettes and cigars too. The spirits clearly continue their bad habits beyond the grave.

Day of the Dead Altar

Finally, flowers are torn up to create a pathway of petals to the altar, candles and fragrant copal incense are lit – the light and scent helps to guide the spirits home – and photographs of the deceased are put in pride of place.

As the Oaxacan saying goes, “We are not here for a long time, we are here for a good time.”

Sarah Gilbert is a freelance travel writer based in London with a love of offbeat and up-and-coming destinations. She has written for Wanderlust, the Sunday Times and the Guardian amongst others. Her work has taken her to around 60 countries and she is always on the lookout for the next undiscovered treasure.

Sarah Gilbert

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