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Funeral customs: Mexico's Day of the Dead

Find out how marigolds, tequila and sea shells all have their part to play in the extraordinary riot of colour that is Mexico's Day of the Dead ...

The Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday, celebrated mainly in the central and southern regions of the country, but also by people of Mexican descent around the world.

Centred on October 31, November 1 and 2 to coincide with All Souls Day, the celebration focuses on gatherings of family and friends who get together to remember loved ones.

The celebrations revolve around private altars called ofrendas. These altars are decorated with flowers and the favourite foods and drinks of the departed. Relatives also visit graves of the deceased to clean and decorate them, and leave gifts, as well as photos and memorabilia.

Some parts of northern Mexico used to distance themselves from the Day of the Dead celebrations and instead celebrated the traditional All Saints’ Day associated with the Catholic Church.

But in the 1960s, the day was classed as a national holiday and therefore the whole of the country embraced the traditions, and it is taught in many schools.

The Day of the Dead celebrations developed from ancient traditions among its pre-Columbian cultures, lasting around a month in August-time. But by the late 20th century, the practises moved to November 1 to pay tribute to deceased children, while November 2 honours deceased adults.

The traditions of the day of the dead usually follow a series of customs:

On October 31, All Hallows Eve, children make altars to invite the spirits of dead children to pay a visit.

November 1 is celebrated as All Saints Day, when adult spirits are encouraged to visit. 

November 2 is All Souls' Day, when families go to the cemetery to decorate the graves and tombs of their relatives. 

The three-day fiesta is filled with marigolds – the flowers of the dead – with the bright colours of the marigolds believed to help guide souls back to earth. The celebrations also include muertos (the bread of the dead); sugar skulls; cardboard skeletons; tissue paper decorations; fruit and nuts; incense, and other traditional foods and decorations.

Preparations take place throughout the year with the gathering of gifts: toys are bought for deceased children and bottles of tequila for adults. Sweets are also placed on the graves and altars.

Pillows and blankets are also left out so the deceased can rest after their long journey. In many places, people have picnics at the grave site as well.

The altars created family homes usually feature Christian crosses, statues or pictures of the Virgin Mary, pictures of deceased relatives and other people and candles.

This is where families tend to gather to pray and tell tales about the deceased. In some locations, celebrants wear shells on their clothing, so when they dance, the noise will wake up the dead; some also dress up as the deceased.

Schools also build altars, while poems are written about the deceased and are published in local newspapers.

The main symbol of the celebrations is the skull which is celebrated in masks and food such as sugar and chocolate skulls. These are often inscribed with the name of the recipient on the forehead.

Other holiday foods include a sweet egg bread made in various shapes from plain rounds to skulls and rabbits, often decorated with white frosting to look like twisted bones.

Some people believe possessing Day of the Dead items can bring good luck. Many people get tattoos or have dolls of the dead to carry with them. They also clean their houses and prepare the favourite dishes of their deceased loved ones to place upon their altar.

Families often drink the favourite beverage of their deceased ancestors to finish off the celebrations.

This is a preview of a feature article.

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