Mexico's Cemeteries Host Día de los Muertos Parties

L. Peat O'Neil in Mexico City
for National Geographic News
November 2, 2005
Across Mexico today families are carrying brooms, brushes, flowers, and
food to local cemeteries. There, the living will tidy up and decorate
the gravesites of departed loved ones.

Later, when the sun sets, families will spend the night beside tombstones of their dead, sharing food, slugging tequila shots, and parading around the cemetery with candles.

Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is an upbeat festival rooted in the ancient traditions of Mexico's Maya, Aztec, Nahuatl, and other indigenous groups.

The custom was adjusted, as many traditional festivals were, to the Catholic calendar following the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 16th century.

While All Saints Day, a Catholic feast day on November 1, recalls the holy, Mexico's Día de los Muertos celebrates and honors all the dead—holy or not—with a special focus on ancestors.

Sugar Skulls

For the past week, Mexico's vendors have been hawking a ghoulish selection of sweets. The treats are gobbled up during tonight's all-night fiestas.

At Maria Vasques Hereda's tiny curbside stall at the Cuauhtémoc market in Mexico City, skulls in eight sizes and at least three flavors line the shelves.

Along with her husband, Vasques Hereda has sold skulls made from chocolate or sesame seed candy, along with other Día de los Muertos accessories, for the past decade.

"We conserve traditions and teach the children," said Vasques Hereda, who sells flowers from her stall the rest of the year and is the third generation of her family to market Día de los Muertos goods from the spot.

Despite the creeping incursion of U.S.-inspired Halloween merchandise—ghosts, witches, and pumpkins with faces—Mexicans continue to follow the holiday traditions they learned as children.

Office workers here in Mexico City, for example, will spend roughly five dollars (U.S.) during lunch breaks on tokens to offer dead relatives: votive candles, ceramic water dishes, or miniature braziers with charcoal and a jalapeno pepper ready to grill.

"Each state in Mexico celebrates Day of the Dead slightly differently," noted Mrs. Vasques Hereda's husband, who wandered over from their nearby flower stall. "Tourists are interested too. So we put up that sign," he added, referring to the orange poster board above the stall's awning.

The hand-lettered sign spells out each item used in the traditional ofrenda, or offering:

• Incense symbolizes union with nature and is also said to awaken the spirits of the dead through aroma;

• water and salt correspond to purity and innocence;

• candles symbolize light and immortality; and

pan de muerto (bread of the dead) represents the tombs.

Votive Altars

Many families here in Mexico will have traveled great distances to cram into their hometown cemeteries for today's all-night parties.

But others, primarily middle class urbanites, create memorial votive altars in their homes, offices, or shops. The ofrendas are created on a shelf or table, decorated with flowers, and laden with gifts to the dead ancestors, whose photos hold pride of place.

Fruit and flowers are neatly laid out amid candles, incense, water, bone-shaped bread, and miniature versions of a dead relative's favorite treats—a cigar, cigarettes, liquor, or candies.

Mexico City resident Isabel Diaz shares her family house with her octogenarian mother and a son in his twenties. After arranging an ofrenda honoring deceased relatives, the family lit candles two days ago to welcome the souls of dead children, los angelitos.

But the Diazes won't be partying graveside tonight. "We went to the cemetery last Sunday, because [tonight] it will be too crowded," Isabel Diaz said.

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