Día de Muertos

What is the Mexican Día de Muertos festival?

What’s this festival called and what is the translation?

Día de Muertos (also called Día de los Muertos) means the Day of the Dead. In reality it spans two days, and the real emphasis is on the Noche de Muertos (the night of the dead) when the souls of the dead are said to come for a visit.

When is it?

1st and 2nd November.

Where does Día de Muertos take place?

Mexico, and throughout Latin America – but its popularity is growing, not least because of the striking imagery of the sugar skulls and films like Coco, so it’s now common to find people holding Day of the Dead-themed parties in the US and Europe.

What happens during Día de Muertos celebrations?

Imagine if, when someone died, it wasn’t “goodbye forever”, but “see you in November”. That’s the central idea of Day of the Dead: the curtain between the worlds of the living and the dead flutter, and the dead slip through for a visit. In Michoacán, where I went to research my book, they see an arrival of butterflies shortly before the Day of the Dead. They announce that the celebration is about to come, and many people believe they are the souls returning.

How did it start?

Day of the Dead began as a monthlong Aztec festival, celebrated around what we would call June. But when the Spanish invaded, they forced it over to the dates of the Catholic All Saints and All Souls days in a colonialist attempt to pass it off as the same thing. Now, on 1st November, the souls of the angelitos come to visit, the ‘little angels’, meaning children and the unmarried (virgins, basically ––you can just see a little bit of Catholicism peeping through, there). The second night sees visits from the souls of adults. In practice, everything melds into one big celebration; families come together, and much as when living relatives come to stay, everything has to be perfect.

The sight of cemeteries

The cemeteries are an incredible sight: every grave is carpeted with marigolds, lit up by candles and watched over by families sitting up all night by the tombs, wrapped in blankets. It’s solemn in the graveyards, but it’s not a solemn occasion. Everywhere else it’s a fiesta, an overt celebration of life.

Offerings

The nucleus of the Day of the Dead is the ofrendas, the offerings for the spirits. People build altars – in their homes, in shops, and enormous ones in the town squares – often decorated with marigolds and pictures of the deceased, but the most important element is the food and drink for the spirits, who arrive hungry and thirsty (if you’d like to build one at home, check out our how-to guide). Jamie our guide in Michoacán told me:

“When we put down ofrendas, we’re inviting the dead to visit. You can invite anyone you’re thinking of. They will come. And just remembering them is to ask them to come.”

What should I expect from Día de Muertos?

In the graveyards, a stunning display of candles, marigolds and families quietly having a lovely time. Also, expect way more tourists than you’d like, many of them rather rudely clicking photos in the faces of people nodding off at 4am. And, as with anywhere beautiful and tourist-heavy these days, there will be drones.

Outside the graveyards, expect an all-night party. The zócalo (town square) will probably have a stage and huge speakers blasting out music until late. Expect lots of eating, drinking, and general merriment.

What shouldn't I expect from Día de Muertos?

An early night.

What can we learn from this festival?

When I visited Mexico to research Day of the Dead for my book, at first I found myself feeling sad. An American tourist asked if people believe the dead are really visiting, literally, and Jaime answered that they do. I was still bereaved after finding my father-in-law dead after a week the previous year, and I found myself wondering how I was supposed to get anything from the ritual of welcoming dead relatives when I couldn’t bring myself to literally believe in it.

Ghosts and spirits

Which is my way of telling you I quite spectacularly missed the point. For my fellow cynics, atheists and party-poopers, I have an important message: Day of the Dead is not only worth the trouble if you literally believe in ghosts and spirits.

Here’s the thing: when someone dies, they leave for good; and rather inconveniently, the love you have doesn’t go anywhere. You’re stuck with it, sitting inside you with no outlet – which hurts, because, as Massive Attack so astutely pointed out in their 1998 song Teardrop, “Love is a verb, love is a doing word”. And as I visited more festivals for the dead, read about death rituals and interviewed people across multiple countries and in multiple languages, I began to realise the point of it all: Day of the Dead brings the dead to life simply by giving action to the love that remains. Welcoming a dead person for a visit, pouring them a drink, leaving them a snack; it’s about giving your love something to do, someone to care for, and somewhere to go.

Your legacy will live on long after you’re gone. And although death is still seen as taboo in our society, communicating about how you’d like to be remembered  can make a difference to those around you.

Express my wishes

Purepecha altar for Day of the Dead

How to build your own Day of the Dead altar

Day of the Dead Altar Building

This time five years ago, Day of the Dead found me bereaved, far from home, and methodically beheading flowers. It’s ok, I’d been asked to.

I was staying at a B&B in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, and as I was there researching Day of the Dead for my forthcoming book, I volunteered to help build their altar. I cut the heads off marigolds, leaving an inch or two of stem, then a guy called Luis weaved them onto a frame, while a Canadian woman hauled in more whenever we ran low. Once the structure was built and set up in the hotel breakfast room, people wandered in and out adding the touches that would transform it into an altar.

Before I get into how you can build a Day of the Dead altar at home, I should point out that there is no hard and fast method. Mexico is an enormous country with various cultures, over 60 indigenous languages and hundreds of dialects; so unsurprisingly, a Day of the Dead altar in a northern desert town will look different to one in the lush mountains of Oaxaca. In Morelos, where I lived for two years, sugar skulls were a common sight on altars, whereas in other areas it’s frowned upon.

I’ll be passing on the method favoured by the Purépecha community indigenous to Michoacán, but keep in mind it’s about honouring the dead, not just achieving a ‘look’. If you have access to a stalk of sugarcane and want to construct an arch woven with golden flowers, have at it – but just as you’re no less married if you say ‘I do’ in jeans and Crocs, you can have a Day of the Dead altar without all the bells and whistles (though if the person you’re honouring liked bells and blew a whistle, by all means chuck ‘em on there).

What you'll need

Day of the Dead Altar essential 1

Table (and a candle)

You’ll need a surface for your altar, ideally with more than one level. You could just place a box on the table so you can display pictures of your dead above the candles and offerings. Some altars have multiple levels starting at the floor like a little flight of stairs.

A candle will light the path home for the spirits.

Purepecha altar for Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead Altar essential 2

Pictures of the dead

Who are you honouring? Put their picture on the top level. You could just have one photo, several pictures of the same person, or even crowd it with everyone you’re welcoming for a visit – this could just be family and friends, but I’ve known people to include pictures of people they never knew but whose loss they feel keenly anyway, like David Bowie.

Offering for day of the dead

Day of the Dead Altar essential 3

Ofrendas

The ofrendas (offerings) are the nucleus of Day of the Dead – namely, food and drink. The idea is that the dead have come a long way, so arrive hungry and thirsty. In Mexico altars are usually adorned with fruit and pan de muerto (bread of the dead), an intensely sweet, sugar-encrusted roll; and a bottle of beer, or shot of tequila – but you can leave out anything the person liked to eat or drink.

And yes, it’s fine to eat the food after the festival is over, but where I lived people wrinkled their noses at the suggestion, since the belief is that the dead suck all the nutrients out of it.

Day of the Dead Altar essential 4

Affects

This is by no means essential, but some people like to leave out things that signify or belonged to the dead person, like a stack of cards or a piece of their jewellery.

Day of the Dead Altar essential 5

The four elements

In the Purépecha tradition, home altars have to include representations of fire, earth, air and water. The drinks you leave out represent water, and the candles provide fire – as do sticks of incense (and though it’s pricey here in the UK, if you can get copal incense, the aroma will transport you to Mexico instantly).

Fruit offering for day of the dead

Fruit represents earth, and the best way to represent air is to hang something off it so it can blow in the wind – a lot of altars in Pátzcuaro shoot two birds with one stone by hanging bananas off the edge of the altar.

Day of the Dead Altar essential 6

Flowers, preferably marigolds

Flowers represent the fragility of life, and I like to imagine they symbolise the dead blooming again, if only for this brief visit.

The flower of the season is the marigold. Its vibrant orange is everywhere during the season of the dead: we see it on pumpkins as Halloween muscles in, on the autumn leaves as they flutter to the ground. In Mexico, it’s the flor de muertos, the flower of the dead, and the scent (especially strong when you squeeze the petals) is said to help guide the dead to the living world. Known as cempazúchitl (also spelled cempasúchil), it combines the Nahuatl words for ‘twenty’ and ‘flower’; the word ‘twenty’ was used to represent ‘many’, so the likely translation is ‘flower with many petals’. Those many petals come in handy as they can be arranged to make a path to the altar, or a border, or just scattered for decoration and aroma.

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Day of the Dead parade with marigolds

Tips on finding marigolds

Despite being native to the Americas, they’re often sold under the name ‘African marigolds’. I haven’t always found it super easy to find fresh marigolds in the UK, as they’re often unavailable or sold out. But don’t despair, you could always buy artificial garlands and store them away the rest of the year like Christmas tinsel. You can also get real dried marigolds on Etsy – or my sneaky tactic is to scatter marigold-petal tea for the colour and fragrance.

Happy building, and Feliz Día de Muertos!


Altar to remember people after their death

Death in different cultures

The biggest lessons other cultures can teach us about death

It all starts with the fear of death. Perhaps it was inevitable that after my fiancé and I found his father dead after a week I would end up anxiety-ridden, agoraphobic, and then somehow travelling the world visiting seven festivals for the dead. Tale as old as time, right?

I began the journey (to Mexico, Nepal, Sicily, Thailand, Madagascar, Japan and Indonesia) with a burden of misconceptions and the vague notion that my deep terror of death was misplaced. Now, four years later and on the cusp of publishing the book that sprang from it all, here are a few of the biggest lessons I brought home.

# Death lesson 1

Death is normal. Who knew? (Seriously, did anyone know?)

Life has a 100% mortality rate, yet each time it’s presented as if something has gone terribly, terribly awry. In films we watched as kids, death was a punishment for baddies. Then we all grew up to discover we’re bound for a baddies’ ending. Thanks, Disney.

 

The idea that death is a normal, ordinary thing only occurred to me in Nepal during the annual festival of Gai Jatra, during which everyone who’s lost someone that year joins a city-wide procession. After the sudden death of his son, King Pratap Malla (who ruled Nepal from 1641–74) invited everyone who’d been bereaved that year to the palace. The Queen, who had been utterly inconsolable, watched as the palace became crammed with people. Because the biggest lie grief tells us is that we’re alone, and the visual trick of seeing thousands of people who have been through it too still holds today.

My god, I thought, as I stared across the crowd, all bouncing and dancing and singing to let the spirits know it was fine to go on to Heaven, I think death might be…normal?!

# Death lesson 2

We’re afraid because we link death with a loss of power

And sure, it’s true, if you want to get all literal about it: when we die, many believe we go to an afterlife or reincarnate – but as for this life, we’re done. Our projects are finished, our power is gone.

Unless you die in the Highlands of Madagascar, or in Tana Toraja in Indonesia, where the dead are seen as the intermediary between people and God. You want good grades, health, a windfall? You pray to your ancestors.

Where death is associated with a gain in power, suddenly not only are the dead remembered with fondness, their actual corpses are invited to the party. In Madagascar they’re exhumed and wrapped in a fresh shroud. In Tana Toraja, they’re exhumed, dressed in smart new clothes, held in poses for photos and are brought onto FaceTime calls with family who couldn’t make it.

death festival in Madagascar

# Death lesson 3

You can have a continuing relationship with a dead person

Death festival in Madagascar

They say “grief is love with nowhere to go”, and we nod along sadly, as if all over the world there aren’t rituals and festivals and events with the clear purpose of giving the love somewhere to go.

 

In Mexico, they welcome the souls of the dead by setting out their favourite food and drink. In China (and Thailand, where I celebrated with my extended family), they picnic in the cemeteries and burn paper money, a kind of divine postal system of sending gifts to the dead.

 

And in Tana Toraja, I watched a woman sit by her long-dead grandmother and take in the dramatic mountain view. She then turned, spotted some dust in her hair, and brushed it away.

No one told me how ridiculous it would seem that this could ever be called ‘morbid’, ‘ghoulish’ or ‘macabre’. No one told me how visible the love would be.

# Death lesson 4

The policy of silence does nothing but harm

Ok, I’ll acknowledge the short-term benefit of not talking about death until we absolutely have to: for that moment, we don’t have to feel a twinge at thinking about something we’ve been told is fearsome. We can kick the can down the road. And who doesn’t love those few moments before someone forces you to pick up the can? Ooh, those can-free moments are like a carnival cruise.

How shrewd of our repressed society to teach that there’s something distasteful, even shameful, about bringing up something people would rather not discuss anyway. Talking about money is vulgar, tacky, gauche. Talking about sex is uncomfortable, rude, a bit much. And talking about death is, apparently, ‘morbid’ – alright, if a guy is licking his lips while talking about the intricate details of bloating and decay, I’ll agree that’s a bit morbid, and no way to conduct yourself on a first date – but it shouldn’t be gasp-inducing to discuss the inescapable fact of your own death, or your wishes for what happens afterwards.

Dealing with death denial

But death denial isn’t just silly; it’s violence. Shouting down our parents and grandparents when they mention they won’t be here one day may seem like a way to say, “I love you and I want you here”, but the knock-on effect of the policy of silence is heartbreaking: people with terminal illnesses in Britain often find themselves deserted by friends and family who “don’t know what to say”, or “want to remember them as they were”. While writing This Party’s Dead I had the opportunity to chat to Laura Green, a lecturer in palliative care at the University of Manchester, who told me when people are dying they are “almost treated as though they’re dead bodies, even though biologically things are carrying on”. They die social deaths before their physical deaths, simply because we don’t have the emotional equipment to face it.

Final thoughts

The western way of grieving

If my brief were to defend our way of death over what I’ve seen at the festivals, I’ve got nothing. Because in places that hold celebrations for the dead, people remain part of the community long after their physical deaths. The love that sustained them in life is still there, bringing them meals, buying them clothes, brushing the dust out of their hair.

Talking and planning for death

Talking about death isn’t easy. We often think it’s something that happens to someone else, never to us. We’re invincible. Only we’re not.

If there’s one lesson other cultures can teach about death is to embrace it. It will happen to the best of us. And talking and planning for what should happen when we’re no longer here, can help us lead a fuller life.


Carved Halloween pumpkin

6 fun and spooky Halloween traditions

Why toffee with apple, and other Halloween traditions explained

Oh, sweet Halloween. We’ve been waiting to get sexy with you since last October. Netflix has released a new batch of horror films. Halloween candy has become a breakfast staple. We no longer have to explain why we’re wearing a vampire cape while shopping for loo roll. Oh yeah baby, come and rattle my bones.

But not everyone’s a Halloween fan. In an unscientific survey of the first 10 people we could find, it seems 70% of the world doesn’t care much for toffee apples. So why does a perfectly pleasant fruit become drenched to inedibility every year?

# Halloween tradition 1

Toffee apples

Fair enough, they’re a dubious joy.. Don’t expect a bounty of toffee flavours like the homemade stuff your Aunt would make. The toffeeness is merely a reference to the boiled sugar, minus the dairy ingredients that...well...make toffee nice. The US doesn’t even use the word ‘toffee’, replaced by the more accurate yet sinister sounding ‘candy’ apple (but only because anything with a reference to candy reminds us of Candyman and needing to sleep in your parents bed for a week.)

Caramel apples

It’s all the fault of one William W Kolb; a real-life Willy Wonka but with a slightly less amusing surname. Frustrated with the progress of his new cinnamon candy potion, he decided to take a break with an apple in hand. Said apple having dropped into said potion, Kolb knew exactly what to do. Some cheap polypropylene wrapping and a cute little ribbon later, the toffee apple was born. Kids loved them. Dentists despaired. Kids won.

Trick or Treat Mick and Tel

To keep socially distanced, you may want to check out Tel's latest invention the Treatmaster 3000

# Halloween tradition 2

Trick or treating

OBack when Halloween was just finding its feet in the UK 2,000 years ago, people would dress themselves in dead (hopefully) animal skin to ward off unwelcome visitors and ease the passage of their loved ones to the mythical land of Samhain.

Later generations liked the dressing up bit, but the whole dealing with the undead was a bit too creepy. So instead young women would go door-to-door doing tricks with yarn, fruit and mirrors.

Impressed fellas would be bagged as husbands, was the plan. It’s hardly the stuff of Derren Brown, and nor does a decent sleight of hand seem the basis for committing to a lifelong relationship…but then we gave history “Married At First Sight”. So glass houses n’ all that.

# Halloween tradition 3

Pumpkin carving

“Away to bed or the Jack-O’-Lantern will have you,” was the inappropriate warning of rural Irish parents to their petrified children. Mr O’Lantern - street name Stingy Jack - was doomed to roam the Earth with only a hollowed turnip to light his way, having come out second best in a bit of a to-do with the Devil. Never wise.

Turnip became pumpkin; and every year since, the little hollowed heads light up while pumpkin baked goods fail to capture the imagination.

Scary halloween pumpkin

The truth behind Stingy Jack is a naturally occurring phenomenon where fluorescent gas is emitted from peat bogs at night. But why let a bit of hard science get in the way of giving your kids mild trauma.

Game of apple bobbing
# Halloween tradition 4

Bobbing apples

Increasingly skeptical that rubbish magic was the way to find true love, the early 1900s saw unmarried ladies go bobbing for apples instead. Once out of the water, the apple would be peeled in one strip (not with their teeth, we presume), thrown over the shoulder, and land in the shape of the letter of the young chap they were destined to wed.

So, immediately we see a few problems with this idea...

# Halloween tradition 5

Nut cracking

October is a mental time for nuts. They’re falling off trees and conking on heads everywhere. And where there’s nuts, there’s a shit game to be played. Like nut cracking. Just sit a couple in an open fire and see which cracks first. Or hisses. Or glows.

By all accounts, Robbie Burns was mad into a night of “The Oracle of The Nuts”, as they called it back then. All sorts of predictions could be made from the winning nut; impending fortune or the arrival of a new lover.

Nut cracking this Halloween

Other times a lone nut would expose a cheating spouse or the presence of a dead relative. Alas the arrival of central heating put an end to fire-induced nut cracking. Our loss.

Halloween the movie

#Halloween tradition 6

Halloweenathon

The movies. All nine of them. And the two they’re going to make. In a dark room, with only a creaking rocking chair, in a cabin, in a deserted wood. By yourself. With no electricity or phone signal. The nearest village is at least five miles away. Beyond a deserted asylum. If you get past the bogland. Where the ravaged skeletons of no-longer definable animals squelch up from their watery graves.

Some traditions are waiting to be made! And if you’re sick of Halloween (the movies), there are other films to keep you shivering through the night. Just check our list of top 5 horror films.

So what have we learned about this deathly festival of Halloween? Well, you can be shit scared of it and hibernate until November rescues you. Or you can take a happier approach. Just like with death itself.


scary movie horror film clown

Top 5 horror films to watch this spooky season

Horror movies to keep you trembling this halloween

There are certain classics we like to reach for during the spooky season. The Shining, IT, Carrie, The Descent… You name the horror film, we’ve probably seen it (no seriously, that’s a dare). But let’s face it horror fan: among those glistening diamonds, there are quite a few ugly rocks. To save you even more heartbreak this halloween (damn you 2020), we’ve put together a list of 5 top horror films to keep you company. Enjoy!

# Horror Film 1: Paranormal

Dark Water

Japan is our go to place for paranormal horror films. The land of cherry blossoms brought us The Grudge, The Ring and the best of them all… Dark Water. Icy calm and eerie with and undercurrent of sadness seems to be just the right recipe for a perfect ghost story.

 

The only downfall? We’re afraid we’re running out of places to stay when we finally visit Japan. Whether we’re talking of comfortable homes adorned with shoji screens or apartment blocks, they’re currently both out of the question.

# Horror film 2: Modern Favourite

The Ritual

If The Blair Witch Project married the Wicker Man (and yes, we’re talking of the original, not the remake), The Ritual would be their baby.

 

All we’ll say is: grief and guilt in the depths of misty Scandinavian woods. Oh, and a peculiar creature some of us might recognise from ‘The Witcher’. But definitely not any bees (sorry to disappoint, Nicholas Cage).

# Horror film 3: Blood and Gore

Train to Busan

Who doesn’t like a good zombie movie? Yes, you’ve probably seen it all before. Cramped quarters? Check. A likeable group of characters? Check. Bloody, bite-y chaos? Check. Will it stop you from you giving it a go? We hope not.  After all it’s a zombie film. And a good one at that.

# Horror film 4: TV SHOW

Haunting of Hill House

Ok, so it’s not a horror film. It’s a Netflix show. And a long one at that. Prepare to dedicate 10 hours of your life to it, but boy is it worth it…! A Halloween binge watch perhaps?

 

Growing up in a haunted house can leave some ghosts lurking at the back of your mind. Both literal and metaphorical. Eventually, you’ll just have to confront them. Just… beware of the bent-neck lady.

# Horror film 5: The Classic

The Crow

This has to be our favourite superhero movie of all time. After being brutally murdered alongside his fiancée the day before their wedding, Eric Draven rises from the grave and assumes the gothic mantle of the Crow, a supernatural avenger.

 

A gothic feel, epic guitar solo and a fantastic final performance by Brandon Lee. What more could you want?

We might not be able to reincarnate you into an epic crow just yet (we’re working on it), but there are other things people can remember you by…

Make a deathwish

Competition's stiff

According to ONS figures, the upcoming month of March is the most fatal period of the entire year, with more deaths worldwide in the third calendar month than at any other time.

Grieving family members might be able to seek solace in the fact that there are hundreds of funeral home names which have a sense of humour. But which are the funniest, we wondered?

We compiled a list of all the wild and ridiculous names out there, and then asked people to rank what they thought were the funniest, and these are the results…

Minge Funerals

When taking over Minge Funerals from Claude and Elizabeth Minge, Sally Harrington and her husband Scott decided the Minge brand and values were too important to change. Located in South Australia, they continue to deliver burial or cremation services at the generous Minge Chapel which seats over 150 people. Spacious, right?

Amigone Funeral Home

Located across 14 locations serving Western New York State, Amigone funerals begs the question, are they really gone?

Slaughter & Son Funeral Directors

Not to be mistaken for a butchers shop (pretty easy mistake), Slaughter & Son Funeral Directors is located in Chicago, Illinois. Despite this being a pretty awkward word to associate with funerals, the directors still manage to bring in customers who seem oblivious to the rather hilarious name.

Hollerbach Funeral Home

We may be wrong, but we don’t think that the dead can exactly ‘holler back’? Perhaps in 1926, when the Chicago based funeral home was established, ‘holler’ didn’t have quite the same meaning then as it does now…

Bruce & Stiff Funeral Home

Sorry, Bruce and what? We know that your company name should reflect the profession you are in, but surely this funeral home in Virginia has taken that just a little bit too literally?

Downer Funeral Home

Funerals can be a bit of a downer, can’t they? Nick J. Downer, owner of Downer Funeral Home in Connecticut, obviously agrees. What we want to know is, did he go into funerals because of his surname, or is it just a bit of an unhappy coincidence?

Go As You Please Funerals

This might be a bit tricky for some of the guests, but Go As You Please seems to offer an open door policy to funeral seekers. Claimed to be the largest independent Funeral Directors in the North East, the company prides itself on its flexible nature to deliver.

Resurrection Funeral Home

Do our eyes deceive us or is this funeral home offering a path back to life? This parlour in Michigan provides both funerals and cremations – if you have both together, does it come with a free resurrection? Asking for a friend.

Cease Funeral Home

Perhaps a play on the word deceased, or perhaps derived from their embalmer Ed Cease, this funeral home is enough to make anyone take a double look. Founded in 1901 in Minnesota, this is one of the oldest funeral homes on our list. Really, if you ask us, that’s more than enough time for a quick name change…