Home » Faith Formation and Pastoral Care » The Day of the Dead in Latin America

There is a history of celebrations in most of the indigenous peoples of Latin America, the Aztec, Mexica, Maya, Purépecha, Nahua and Totonaca ethnic groups. The rituals that celebrate the life of the ancestors have been carried out in these civilizations for at least three thousand years. In the pre-Hispanic era, it was common to keep the skulls as trophies and to show them during the rituals that symbolized death and rebirth.

The idea of death in pre-Hispanic cultures in Latin America is conceived as an event that involves a change that should not be understood as the end of a cycle, but as the continuation of it. Moreover, it keeps a harmonic (cyclical) relationship with life, since it is the origin and consequence of it.

Throughout Latin America, the native peoples celebrate their dead not with pain, but understanding death as one more stage of life. In this way, from Mexico to Chile there are dances, chicha, garlands with flowers and at all the tables an empty place is left to wait for the arrival of the deceased loved one who during “Día de los Muertos” will be with his beloved ones.

The pre-Hispanic burials were accompanied by offerings that contained two types of objects: those that, in life, had been used by the deceased, and those that he might need in his transit to the underworld. In this way, the elaboration of funerary objects was very varied: musical instruments of clay, such as ocarinas, flutes, kettledrums and rattles in the shape of skulls; sculptures that represented the mortuary gods, skulls of different materials (stone, jade, crystal), braziers, incense burners and urns.

“The expansion of Catholicism in Latin America re-signified the cults to the dead, from Mexico to the highlands of Argentina, and many of these rituals happened to be held on November 1, All Saints Day, or November 2, All Souls Day, keeping the original characteristics conjugated with Catholic beliefs. “These dates are part of the construction of new identities where the indigenous past coexists, the European past and a good present of ours “, explains the anthropologist Fernando Pepe.

For our native peoples “life is not linear, it is not that we are born, grow and die but it is a cycle: The body returns to the pacha (earth) but the spirit, energy, soul or newen, as the Mapuches call it, goes to another level and on the day of the soul a passage opens and they visit us again.

In contrast to the European tradition, which tinges with sadness and pain on this day, where the living will bring flowers to the dead, the ancestral custom of our indigenous peoples gives a strong color and symbolic charge to this day, no tears among the original peoples, there is joy and celebration: death and life, life and death are complementary processes. In this way the Collas, Quechuas, Mapuches, Querandí­es, and Diaguitas communities prepare their best meals and drink their favorite drinks to honor their dead who, at some point on this day, will find a way to return to their homes, visiting friends, loved ones and family.

The Day of the Dead is celebrated in many different ways depending on the origin and traditions of each country and community. In Latin America, this day represents in many countries a holiday full of colors and cheerful motifs that refer to death, but from another perspective. With the heritage of indigenous culture, Latin Americans who celebrate this day take the opportunity to meet spiritually with their beloved ancestors and thus celebrate life.

The best-known celebration of the “Dí­a de los Muertos” in the United States is that of Mexico because of its proximity to the US. UNESCO has declared the Mexican Indigenous festivity dedicated to the dead to be An Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Celebrations of the Day of the Dead take place in major cities across the U.S., especially in San Antonio, Los Angeles, Chicago, Phoenix and in the small towns in these areas.



In Bolivia, the ceremony begins at 12:00 noon on November 1 until noon on November 2 (holiday). It is believed that “on November 1 at noon the ajayus return from their mountains to live together for 24 hours with their family and friends.” This ritual consists in the donation of offerings to the souls, by means of “an altar or table also called apxata that is adorned with flowers, candles, canes, fruits, drinks and sweets, in addition to other elements”.
One of the elements that forms part of the altar is the “tantawawa”. The tantawawa is a cake of approximately 50 cm “with human form and a colorful face that is modeled in stucco and that represents the deceased”. The ladder of bread is another component of the apxata that symbolizes the ascent of souls to heaven.
A very common activity in those dates is the traditional visit to the cemetery, where people come together to receive the souls of their dead among offerings, prayers and music. In the event that the deceased has died the same year, a table or altar is made. A very popular custom is “to make pray”, it is about hiring someone (yatiri, musician or rezador) to raise a prayer or dedicate a song to the deceased.


Photo by Flávio José Rocha


In Brazil, the celebration similar to the Day of the Dead (as we know it in Mexico and most of Latin America) is the Day of Commemoration of the Faithful Dead. This celebration is Christian tradition brought by the Portuguese, the European country that conquered Brazil. There was not a large civilization and they did not have large and recognized celebrations.

The day of the deceased or Commemoration of the Faithful Dead is celebrated on November 2. On this day the family members bring flowers to the dead. It is not customary to bring them food. On this day the priests say three funeral masses except when November 2 falls on a Sunday. Many people pray this day to the souls that are in purgatory so they can go out. In Brazil, they don’t make altars, but the closest people bring them flowers representing all the love and respect they had for the deceased. Some people also take some things that belonged to the deceased and put them in their grave.

Many people in Brazil visit the cemeteries to visit the graves of their family and friends. In Sao Paulo, the largest city in Brazil, almost two million people visit the municipal cemeteries, while in Rio de Janeiro the figure is even higher at 2.5 million people.



Mictecací­huatl, the Lady of Death, walks among the living through the streets of the town of Tonacatepeque, El Salvador, where the night of each November 1 is celebrated as the Day of Calabiuza in her honor and that of her husband, Mictlantecuhtli, and in tribute to the deceased.

The night is filled with the undead with costumes representative of the mythology of El Salvador, who walk to the sounds of their own canticles, whose lyrics – “Angels are from heaven and we are asking for a spoil for our way mino mino” – is repeated incessantly between cries and cries that represent pain for the absent.

Photo by Peg Vámosy

The Day of the Faithful Dead is one of the dates of great importance for Salvadorans who visit the cemeteries to remember their loved ones. Also, they take advantage of this day to celebrate the lives of those who are still alive.

There are five traditions of Salvadorans to remember the faithful departed.

  1. Enflorar
    Every year the families will fill with flowers the graves of their loved ones who have died. For many people in the community it is very painful not knowing where the bodies are of their relatives killed by the war and they feel a great pain because they cannot fill with flowers their tombs. Crowns and arrangements are sold, natural and artificial flowers, as well as other materials that serve to decorate the tombs, with this activity the cemeteries end up full of colo.
  2. Clean the tombs
    The family takes paint, brushes, brooms among other items to clean and renew the tombs and niches of their loved ones.
  3. Bring music
    There are many musical groups where many people request the favorite songs of their loved ones when they were alive.
  4. Traditional dishes
    The typical food is also tasted on this day. Pupusas de chipilín, tamales, yuca frita or hojuelas with honey of panelas. It is also customary to make ayote with honey.
  5. Religious activities
    In most of the cemeteries, special masses or cults are celebrated to remember the loved ones on this date.