"Nuestro culto a la muerte es culto a la vida, del mismo modo que el amor que es hambre de vida es anhelo de muerte."—Octavio Paz

El Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican celebration where we welcome our loved ones who have passed to break bread together once more. People build altars in their houses to honor their memories and display different symbolic offerings to guide their souls back home. This ritual's vibrant smells, sights, and sounds take us back to its origins in pre-Hispanic times and remind us about a non-binary afterlife richer than heaven and hell.

The underworld and the celebration of the dead.

The prehispanic cult of the dead holds a significant place in the history of ancient civilizations. They revered life, death, and the journey in between. According to how a person met their end, the Aztecs believed in four destinations in the afterlife:

  • Tonatiuhichan, or “house of the sun,” was the destination for warriors dead in battle, captured for sacrifice, and the destination for pregnant people
  • Tlalocan was the paradise destination for those dead by drowning or because of water
  • Chichihualcuauhco was a destination for dead infants. In there, they suckled a huge nursing tree until they were born again
  • Mictlán is the kingdom of the dead and the destination for those dead by all other causes not related to water, war, or pregnancy

The Teotihuacan people buried their deceased loved ones wrapped in petates, a type of woven mat, before placing them in their final resting place. Once the grave was closed, the community would come together to celebrate and guide the souls of the departed to Mictlán, the underworld.

The earth goddess, Tlaltecuhtli, took four years to consume the buried bodies of the dead, and it wasn’t until that period had passed that the dead were able to start their journey through the Mictlán.

The final resting realm had nine levels of challenging geography that the dead had to navigate before reaching their final resting place. They would walk naked through a stretch where mountains constantly clash, fight a snake, hike the “knife mountains,” hike 8 snowed peaks, walk 8 routes where the wind cuts like a knife, walk over a channel of black water avoiding a lizard, and go across a river with the help of the Xoloitzcuintle dog. Finally, they’d arrive to meet Mictlantecuhtli, the god of the underworld. The dead presented Mictlantecuhtli with the offerings they were buried with. 

The tradition was to celebrate the dead on multiple occasions during the year. The most important celebrations happened around the end of the harvests and lasted up to a month between what we know as September and November. Homage was paid by building altars and offerings that symbolized the help the living were lending the dead on their journey through the Mictlán. The celebrations also served as a cathartic experience for the living to grieve and find closure.

Evolution of the celebration.

The celebration as we know it today has its roots in syncretism, the amalgamation of pre-Hispanic and Christian beliefs that occurred after the arrival of the Spaniards. The Catholic colonizers were devoted to erasing the indigenous’ homage to the dead, as it was considered a pagan belief. The burial of loved ones in the person’s home was eliminated, and the remains were buried in church grounds. Wealthy people inside and poor people in the atrium.

The celebration was modified to last for only two days and merged with the European celebrations of All Saints and All Souls’ Days at the beginning of November, which coincided with the indigenous “Celebration of the Little Dead,” Miccaühuitontli, and the “Celebration of the Big Dead,” Huey Miccaühuitl. Spaniard traditions were adopted, like eating deserts in the shape of bones, and subsequently, derived into the famous “pan de muerto,” or bread of the dead.

The Altar elements and offering symbolism.

Nevertheless, the modern celebration of the Day of the Dead is still ritualistic and steeped in layers of symbolism. In the same manner that our ancestors raised altars to celebrate the dead, we build our own at home and spread our offerings in remembrance of what our loved ones enjoyed eating or as a leisure activity, ultimately to guide their souls back home where we’ll meet again.

  • SKULLS We can trace the origins of altars to the “tzompantli,” the sacred structures used to display the skulls of warriors as a death ritual to honor deities. The pervasive placement of skulls on altars can also be traced to this practice; they are sculpted out of black or red clay, but they are also made out of sugar as an amalgamation of ancestral and Spaniard traditions. 
  • CEMPASUCHIL FLOWER The vibrant cempasúchil flower is the quintessential flower of Dia de los Muertos. Our ancestors believed their golden color represented the sun, and for this reason, we use them to build paths and decorate as a beacon of light that will guide the dead back home. This flower is native to México, and it’s grown in the states of Guanajuato, Hidalgo, Michoacán, and the State of México.
  • INCENSE Burning incense or resins like copal is a ritual used to clean the spaces from bad spirits so the souls of our loved ones can safely enter the home. 
  • WATER To quench the thirst of the dead souls after the long journey they take to come back home.
  • SALT The salt is used as an element of purification believed to prevent the soul of the dead from corrupting along the journey.
  • FOOD An offering with some of the favorite meals the deceased enjoyed eating when they were alive. Their soul will be nourished with the aromas after the long trek home.
  • PHOTOS We place the photos of our loved ones we are honoring in a portrait toward the top of the altar.
  • CANDLES The light from the candles symbolizes a guiding light for the dead to find their way home. In some instances, there is a candle lit for each deceased person that a family is honoring. This element is another combination of indigenous and European traditions. Before colonization, our ancestors used Ocote, a type of pine wood, to shine a light on the dead. 

In a ritual manner, the candles are lit every day starting on October 28 to welcome the lost souls. On October 29, we light the next candle for the solitary and forgotten souls; on October 30, we light up a candle for those who left in a tragic way; on October 31, a candle is lit for those who died unbaptized; on November 1 the souls who died too soon, as children arrive; and finally on November 2 is the day all adult dead souls visit their loved ones.  

On the night of the first and second of November, as the night deepens, many families gather in cemeteries, not in sorrow, but in celebration—embracing the transient nature of life and the eternal bond of love. El Dia de Muertos is considered an intangible cultural heritage of humanity by UNESCO as an indigenous festivity.

At Temazcal Life, we cherish this yearly ritual that allows us to reconnect with our loved ones and brings us together with our community to celebrate life and death. We believe in rituals because they are traditions worth celebrating and passing on, as they have been passed down to us for centuries. But we also believe in the power of ritual to “buffer against uncertainty and anxiety.” As advocates devoted to raising awareness about the mental health disease needs of our community, we aim to bring forward the rituals that enrich our lives and maintain our health.