Dia De Los Muertes


Day Of The Dead The Ofrenda The Glossary
Classroom Activities Lesson Plans Links and Photo Index


Day Of The Dead


Just as there are differences in details of the altars and the celebrations from one family to another so there are differences among the many ethnic groups which make up Oaxaca. But in every home, in every cemetery, in every community, La Día de los Muertos is possibly the most important celebration of the year.

This intensely personal celebration is at the same time a communal expression of tradition and belief, reverence and ridicule in the face of common destiny. There are altars in stores restaurants and public buildings, with a prize for the best decorated. Skeletons, "calacas" and catrinas are to be found everywhere and candy skulls sport names of all origins.

The celebrations that take place during El Dia de los Muertos reflect the underlying purpose of the Adventure Learning Foundation. That purpose is to learn about and to teach others about cultures different from our own and to respectfully observe and appreciate all of the color and pageantry of new cultures. Due to its heritage, Oaxaca is one of the places in the world that preserves its customs and traditions. During this holiday, the people here show their belief that death is only another phase of life from which we both shrink from and celebrate.

The people of Oaxaca open their lives and invite all of us to spend this holiday with them. One of the most important elements of this time is the fiestas and picnics that take place in the cemeteries around the city. During the week before the "Dias", the families visit the graves of their relatives, cleaning, painting and decorating them for their symbolic return to life. The the actual Days of the Dead, the families celebrate the life of the deceased with meals and music, all taking place at the gravesides.

Top of Page

The Ofrenda


The Ofrenda (Altar)

Each family builds and decorates an ofrenda each year. There is a special market on October 31 selling only materials for the altars and other necessities for this season, while pan de muerto and calaveras are to be found everywhere.

A typical ofrenda, or altar begins with a table on which are placed boxes to represent the tombs and all is covered with a white tablecloth or sheet or with papel picado, paper cutouts with special themes related to the season. Long stalks of sugarcane or carrizo are tied to the front legs of the table, formed into a large arch over the altar, which are then decorated with flowers. The images of the saints and the family dead are placed on the altar and everywhere there are flowers: The golden flower of death, the Zempoalxochitl or Zempasúchil (a very large golden marigold), is the most prevalent color on the ofrenda.

The special offerings of food may include mole, nicuatole, pumpkin cooked with brown sugar, cane sugar and tejocotes. Beautifully decorated pan de muerto, chocolate, pecans and peanuts. Cooked chayote and fresh fruits - oranges, lemons, bananas, jícama, tejocotes, nísperos and pineapple. If the deceased smoked or drank, then cigarettes and mezcal are placed on the altar together with any other special foods or items, which were a favorite in life.

If the altar is for an "angelito" or child, it will also include favorite toys and many white flowers. Then comes the lamp with oil of higuerilla, the wax candles, white or yellow adorned with black crepe paper. An especially elaborate altar may also feature a colored sand and seed painting on the floor in front of it representing a particularly esteemed saint.

A uniquely Mexican custom, especially prevalent in Oaxaca is the use of calaveras and catrinas and the ever-present skeletons, skulls, tombs and coffins. The calaveras are candy skulls, wood or clay figures depicting skeletons dressed as doctors, judges, teachers, footballers, tennis players, prostitutes - every conceivable profession and pastime is caricatured. Serious paintings and sculptures in the famous Oaxacan black clay and other materials appear in stores and museums, as well as on family altars.


The Calaveras are also shown in drawings lampooning politicians, teachers, and friends and there is a special section of calaveras in the newspapers "honoring" those in the public eye.

La Catrina is a female skeleton with the chapeau and dress of the 19th century grande dame and everywhere represents death which can catch you anywhere and anytime.


With an unusually mocking gesture, Oaxacans convert Death to a near presence.


Top of Page

The Glossary


El Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, is a Mexican celebration. Here are some of the words & phrases used for the event.
  • Alabanza ~ praise; more specifically, a Catholic hymn of praise.
  • Alfeñique de Dia de los Muertos ~ sweets made of sugar, typically in the shape of sugar skulls.
  • Atole ~ a gruel sweetened and flavored with crushed fruits and sugar, and thickened with masa. Flavorings can vary.
  • Calavera ~ candied skulls, usually made of sugar or chocolate, although rarely eaten; also satirical verses and/or obituaries.
  • Cempasúchil ~ orange-yellow marigold flower, favored for decorations. Spelling varies.
  • Cielo ~ the sky, or heaven. Represented by a piece of fabric or plastic draped overhead, above the table (ofrenda).
  • Copal ~ resin from tropical trees, used to make varnishes. Burning as incense dates back to Pre-Hispanic times.
  • Dia de los Muertos ~ Day of the Dead. Also spelled "dias", which is "days" (Days of the Dead).
  • Dia de los Difuntos ~ Also used for Day of the Dead.
  • Dulce de Calabaza ~ candied pumpkin.
  • Hojaldras ~ sweet bread.
  • La Catrina is a female skeleton with the chapeau and dress of the 19th century grande dame and everywhere represents death which can catch you anywhere and anytime.
  • La Noche de Duelo ~ the beginning of the Day of the Dead, with a candlelight procession to the cemetery. Literally, "The Night of The Mourning".
  • Los Angelitos ~ children who have died & are now remembered on the All Saints' Day feast. Literally, "little angels".
  • Los Niños Limbos ~ literally "children in limbo". Infants who have died before being baptized.
  • Ofrenda ~ "The offering", the table or area decorated to hold the offerings (food, beverage, candies, etc.) for the spirits.
  • Ollas ~ pottery made for cooking.
  • Tapete de Arena ~ sculptures or "carpets" made from dyed sawdust, sand, multicolored seeds, flower petals and powdered lime.
  • Todos Santos ~ All Saints' Day
  • Zempasúchil ~ (an indigenous) word for a special type of marigold)
  • Pan de Muerto ~ bread of the dead. A sweet, rich coffee cake decorated with meringues made to look like bones, skull-shaped candies and sweets, marzipan death figures and papier maché skeletons and skulls.


Top of Page

Home    Welcome to Oaxaca    Oaxaca Journal
Oaxaca Photo Index
    Send us an Email