Dia de Muertos or Day of the Dead, is a two-day holiday celebrated throughout Mexico, where it began. Far from being a sad occasion, it is colorful, humorous and joyful. The holiday reaches back to Mexico’s pre-Columbian history, and has spread internationally through modern pop culture.
From 31 October (Halloween or All Hallow’s Eve, in many countries) through 2 November, families honor the role of death in life and connect with those who have died, both loved ones and famous figures.
Beginning in the 14th century, the Aztec people built a powerful civilization centered around their capital city, Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City. Aztec mythology revolved around gods and goddesses who ruled the natural and spiritual worlds.
The Aztecs had their own “day of the dead,” a month-long festival that took place around the modern month of August. During this festival, the Aztec people honored the spirits of dead ancestors, and paid tribute to the married god and goddess who ruled the underworld.
Mictecacihuatl was known as the “lady of the dead.” She ruled the underworld, and watched over the bones of the dead, which the Aztecs believed were a source of life in the next world. Her grinning skull face is strongly associated with Dia de Muertos.
Mictecacihuatl’s husband, Mictlantecuhtli, helped her rule the underworld. His skull head was decorated with owl feathers and grisly body parts. Honored with human sacrifices he was a powerful figure in Aztec mythology. He plays a smaller role than his wife in today’s Day of the Dead celebrations.
A Mix of Three Cultures
In Mexico City’s Plaza de las Tres Culturas (Square of Three Cultures), Aztec, Spanish and contemporary Mexican cultures meet. The traditions of Dia de Muertos draw from all three of these cultures.
As the location of several historic massacres, the square has a deep connection with death. Recently, archaeologists discovered that it was once a burial ground. The dead appear to have been Aztec warriors who died in battle, but their burial manner shows the influence of Spanish Christianity.
The Aztec temple and pyramids were part of the city of Tlatelolco, an ancient sister-city and rival to the larger Tenochtitlan. In the 1400s, the two city-states went to war. Tenochtitlan won, and eventually became Mexico City.
The Spanish conquered the Aztec empire in 1519. The cities of Tlatelolco and Tenochtitlan were the last to surrender after a bloody siege. During Spanish rule, Catholicism spread rapidly. On the Catholic “All Saints’” and “All Souls’” days in early November, the dead are honored.
On October 2, 1968, students gathered outside the Chihuahua Building as part of an ongoing protest for greater democracy. The police opened fire on the crowd. Memorials to the students who were killed add to the square’s role as a shrine.
Cemeteries and Graveyards
This crowded graveyard in the community of Mixquic on the outskirts of Mexico City is home to one of the largest Dia de Muertos festivals in the world.
Relatives gather in the graveyard, filling it with flowers, candles, music, and dancing. They share food, drink, and stories. The festivities now draw visitors from around the globe.
During the Day of the Dead holiday, skulls can be seen everywhere in Mexico. They recall Mictecacihuatl, the skull-headed Aztec goddess of death. Sugar skulls are a popular gift between friends and family members. Painted sugar skulls decorate graves and altars called ofrendas.
Orange marigolds are a symbol of Dia de Muertos, and graves and ofrendas are always decorated with flowers. Other decorations include colorful tissue paper cutouts, candles, incense, and the dead person’s favorite foods and drinks.
Catholic symbols including crucifixes are a large part of Dia de Muertos. Families offer Catholic prayers, and combine Dia de Muertos with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, Catholic holidays that honor the dead.
Museo de la Muerte: Laughing at Death
The Museo de la Muerte, or Museum of Death, explores the role of death in Mexican culture. Death, skulls, funerals, and graves play a large—and often cheeky—role in Mexico.
The museum traces the history of death from the Aztecs to modern Mexico, including the art and traditions that now make up Dia de Muertos.
Jose Guadalupe Posada was a printmaker whose political cartoons often featured skulls and skeletons. He worked during the rule of Mexican President Porfirio Díaz, who was driven out of office by the Mexican revolution of 1911.
Posada’s most famous work was the Calavera de la Catrina (the Skull of Catrina), a skeleton in a fancy hat. The image mocked Mexicans who copied fancy European styles but were dead to ancient traditions. It provided a link between contemporary Mexican culture and Mictecacihuatl.
Mexican culture regards death openly and intimately. Funerals are very important, and large extended families, including young children, take part. Viewing the dead body is routine. Funerals and corpses are often incorporated into Mexican art.
Cartonería in the Museo Dolores Olmedo
Dolores Olmedo was a wealthy Mexican businesswoman who loved the arts. She helped support two of Mexico’s most important painters, husband and wife Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
Both artists drew from Mexico’s history and culture. Kahlo, who lived with painful disabilities, often wove Mexican images of death into her paintings. The Dolores Olmedo Museum includes their work, alongside an enormous collection of archaeological artefacts, folk art and contemporary Mexican art.
The Atomic Apocalypse – Day of the Dead (1980/1989)British Museum
Cartonería is the traditional Mexican art of papier-mâché sculptures. These life-size skeletons, sometimes riding skeleton horses, decorate graves and ofrendas. Some have marionette-like movement.
Detail of "Un cuento de cartón" Day of the Dead Offering (2011) by Museo Dolores OlmedoMuseo Dolores Olmedo
Cartonería continue the Mexican tradition of using death imagery to poke fun. Humorous scenes, like these gangsters being pulled in by a policeman, are common. Skeletons are often shown drinking, dancing, and causing trouble.
The Mexican Museum of Design, or MUMEDI, is a museum of illustration, graphic and industrial design. Every year, MUMEDI sponsors a contest for designers.
Their “To Death with a Smile” exhibit challenges artists to make a poster on the theme of death. Fun designs like these help spread the colorful, spooky, witty images of Dia de los Muertos around the world. The holiday grows in popularity every year.
The grinning, colorful skull has become the main icon of Dia de Muertos. Hispanic and other communities around the world have begun adopting the imagery and the holiday itself. Skull-like makeup is often part of the festivities.
In Mexico, images of death remain linked to social and political causes. Mexican artists and designers use images of death to confront environmental, crime, and economic problems in the country.