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Day of the Dead or Dia de Los Muertos for Dummies November 3, 2011

Posted by alwaysjan in Art, Art Education, Holidays, Personal.
Tags: , , , , , ,

I’d planned to write the definitive post on Day of the Dead aka Dia de Los Muertos, a holiday that is near and dear to my heart. But the reality (surreality?) of having 31 students killed that. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then I have a table reserved front row center.

I’d never heard of the Day of the Dead until I moved to SoCal. I grew up in the Midwest. There was no talk of death when I was a child. Death was just so downright-morbid.

So when I moved to Los Angeles, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What’s with all of these figures of skeletons partying and drinking cerveza and tequila?”

Then a friend and I happened to visit Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles where Dia de Los Muertos merchandise was everywhere. We came upon an empty storefront that featured a community exhibit of ofrendas (altars).

There were the usual ofrendas for beloved relatives, but also one for battered women, a young child who died at the hands of his mother, and even one for a beloved dog that featured the dog’s collar and treats. The ofrendas were beautiful in their simplicity and originality. I found myself weeping tears of…joy?

There was also a huge wooden box filed with sand. People were urged to write a message to a loved one who had passed. The message was wrapped around a stick, tied with a piece of embroidery thread, and then planted in the sand.  I can’t remember now who I wrote a note to. But when I planted my stick with a hundred or so others, I felt a connection to all of the people who’d taken the time to write a message to someone they missed. How often do we get to do that in real life?

Unlike Halloween, Dia de los Muertos celebrates the temporal nature of life. Each ofrenda is created from scratch each year. They’re not dragged off to be stored with the artificial Christmas tree and trotted out the next year. That’s one of the things that I love about this holiday.

Several years ago, I decided to host a Dia de los Muertos celebration. Several friends who came were Mexican Americans, but they’d grown up in regions of Mexico where the holiday was not celebrated. This was a first for them, so I wanted to get it right.

My friend, Martha, who is from a close knit Mexican family, talked to her parents, and they came up with some “musts” for a traditional altar. (But, keep in mind, that each altar is open to individual interpretation.)

Basic Structure of an altar:

Four Levels to represent:
earth,wind, water, fire
north, south, east,west
summer, fall, winter, spring
birth, childhood, adult life, death

A picture of the loved one is placed at the highest point

Symbols of the 4 elements
a jar/dish of water for the thirsty soul
a shell – symbolizes water
a flute –  symbolizes wind
Corn, shiles, tomatillos, and cacao –  symbolize earth
candles – to light the way, to symbolize fire
marigolds for their scent & brevity of life
copal (incense) – a dish of worship, its scent
calaveras (sugar skulls with names) to mock death
dog – to guard the soul, to accompany the soul to its afterlife
dish of salt – for purification of the soul


Pan de muerto – to nourish the soul (Sweet with anise seeds)
Any favorite food of the deceased
Money – to pay the dog for guarding the soul and the fare to be paid for crossing to the other world
Petate (Mat) on the floor – a place for the soul to rest after the long journey.
Mirror – to scare evil spirits & so they won’t eat the food
A frog – signifies twilight of another day.

Optional: Papel picado (cut paper banners), masks, an arch, calaveras, mementos.

The biggest problem was that year the marigolds bloomed early. There was not a marigold to be found. But then I spotted a huge clump of them at an apartment complex and went out late one night to do a little hunting and gathering. Problem solved.

Martha, a dog lover like myself, brought over the collars of some of her beloved dogs. She said with utmost sincerity, “We’ll need a bowl of water because they’ll be thirsty after their long journey.” I fetched it, while she lit what seemed like a zillion candles.

That year I’d googled the name of my first true love only to learn he’d died four years earlier. He’d never married. So it was his picture that I put on the ofrenda along with a shot a whiskey, something that would sooth his soul after a long journey. One of my friends made killer tacos and another brought pan de muerto from a neighborhood bakery that was way better than mine.

I’m afraid that this year, Day of the Dead drew the short stick, what with Halloween on a Monday. I had warned parents that I thought Dia de los Muertos was of cultural relevance ahead of time and we’d be doing an activity. (I’ve got a group of parents at a local seminary, so I tread lightly.)

I brought in my box of sand on Tuesday. Most of my students were zombified from trick-or-treating except for the ones who believe it’s the Devil’s birthday. I suppose I should have given THOSE students homework. I was not too together. I asked my students to collect twigs off the playground and we made an arch that was held together with paper marigolds.

Students had the option of writing a message to a loved one who’d died. One girl wrote three for various goldfish who were last seen swimming in the toilet bowl. I was most touched when one of my students asked if she could write a note to her mother. Everyone knows her mother died when she was in kindergarten. She was worried because her mother only spoke Spanish, and she’d forgotten most of her Spanish. I was fortunate to have an aide in the room who translated her message into Spanish. I helped her wrap it around the stick, noticing that she’d drawn a lot of hearts on it. “I see a lot of love in this message,” I said. The girl smiled.

The students loved how the box turned out. “It looks like a little graveyard!” someone said. Tomorrow, I’ll bring home the messages. They’re ritually burned. I’ll never know the words of love that they contain, but my students do. And that’s what’s most important.

As I originally said, I’d hoped to write the definitive post on Day of the Dead, but that didn’t happen. A fellow teacher told me a hilarious story in The New Yorker about a preschool teacher who decided to celebrate Day of the Dead with disastrous results. The entire incident is told in a series of painful, yet hilarious emails that should give any teacher the will to get up and go to work tomorrow. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, I know the writer of the article will be sitting at my table. Mas cerveza por favor!


1. CZBZ - November 4, 2011

Loved the New Yorker article and really loved your post!

I am fairly ignorant about the Day of the Dead as a traditional holiday. ‘Dawn of the Dead’ is more familiar to me and ‘Return of the Living Dead’ is a perennial favorite in October. ‘The Walking Dead’ is fast becoming my television highlight of the week.

I would love to know more about the Day of the Dead. I enjoyed reading about the alter you created, the honor given to the deceased while at the same time, celebrating being alive.

We ignore/deny death in our culture and the mistake therein, is that we don’t appreciate life. We pretend to ourselves that we can escape the laws of mortality…if we only take the right pill, the right food combinations, the right exercise, the right attitude… If we do most or all of those things, we can live without surrender.

(Maybe one reason Zombie films are so popular today is the overt theme of life and death–and the metaphor of the walking dead who exist to thoughtlessly consume, consume, consume…).

Thanks for writing about the Day of the Dead. It was touching to read about your relationship-with and dedication-to your kids.

Now I’ll have to stay awake a little longer and google Dia de Los Muertos!!


When my friend came from England, I took her up to The Folk Tree, a local shop that is Ground Zero for all things Mexican. Oh, to have a picture of the look on her face when she saw all of the raucous Dia de los Muertos figures! I did put a link to Wikipedia for Day of the Dead. I’ll have to dig up the article I read about the huge impact that the obsession with zombies is having on the economy. Really. Start cranking out that zombie art! Jan


2. Catherine Sherman - November 6, 2011

I didn’t know anything about the Day of the Dead, either, until I moved to the Kansas City area. I still don’t know very much, and maybe that’s because of my natural squeamishness about the whole topic.
The next time you visit, we’ll check out this place:

It has a lot of Day of the Dead art exhibits, although you won’t be here in the fall. It’s in an interesting part of the city.

I think you’d find it quite interesting as it is indeed a celebration of people’s lives. I find it a lot less ghoulish than the Halloween blood and gore. But that’s me. This sounds like an interesting place – I’d love to stop in on my next visit. Jan


3. elissestuart - November 7, 2011

My only experience with Day of the Dead was through a Spanish teacher friend of mine. She gave her students the assignment of making their own alters out of shoe boxes. Some were quite elaborate, others were very morbid – all of them were emotionally sad. This was a few years ago – now their assignment is an essay, in Spanish.
I remember the year you had the party for Day of the Dead – I believe my contribution was connected to the N. LOL


4. elissestuart - November 7, 2011

I’ve just read the New Yorker article linked in your post.
Wait — let me clear my throat and wipe the tears of laughter away again.
It just goes to show you that school employees – no matter what our job – we have to tread carefully around parents.
Maybe that’s why an N didn’t seem like a big deal – we were used to walking on egg shells.

Elisse – I like the fact that “some parents were offended that other parents were offended.” It got me laughing cause you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Glad it gave you a good laugh on a rainy day. 🙂 Jan


5. Lori - March 1, 2012


Such as great post. I’m from a Mexican family and some of these things I remember, particularly the marigolds and the altars. I have a book, “THe Skeleton at the Feast” which has some great pictures, a few in color. This post brought up some great memories for me.

After that first time seeing the alters, I was sold on Dia de los Muertos. I have students who write their notes in Korean to grandparents along with students who write notes to their pet dogs in doggie heaven. There’s something so incredibly beautiful about this ritual celebration of life/death. Not far from my house is The Folk Tree Gallery. Each year they host a Dia de los Muertos Celebration. One year there was an ofrenda for the vanishing bees. Another year there was a ladder constructed of twigs that seem to ascend into the heavens. I’m constantly amazed at the originality of the ofrendas. My goal as a teacher is for students and parents to gain an appreciation for this positive celebration. Love is a universal language. Jan


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