They say you only truly die when your name is spoken for the last time. Nowhere is this more true than in Mexico, where Día de Muertos – or Day of the Dead – takes remembering lost loved ones to a whole new level.

At first glance, this national holiday may pass for a Mexican version of Halloween, with its spooky skeletons and sweet treats. But while modern Halloween exists largely to peddle pumpkins and face paint, Día de Muertos is a bittersweet reflection on love, loss and life well lived.

A woman stands in a doorway selling piles of bright orange marigolds and deep pink cockscomb flowers for Day of the Dead in Santa Clara de Cobre, Michoacán

Piles of cempasúchil and cockscomb flowers in Santa Clara del Cobre, Michoacán

According to Mexican tradition, 2nd November is the one day when souls can leave the afterlife. To help guide lost loved ones back to earth, families build elaborate altars in homes and graveyards. These offerings are draped with flower garlands and colourful crêpe paper, and hung with corn cobs, fruit and sugar cane. Dozens of flickering candles light the way, while the scent of cempasúchil – Mexican marigolds – hangs in the air.

Family members light candles on an offering in Tzintzuntzán, Michoacán

Family members light candles on an offering in Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán

Water, salt and sweet pan de muerto bread are laid out to nourish the dead after their long journey home – and it doesn’t stop there. Children’s graves are festooned with sweets and toys, while tobacco and tequila are left to tempt the spirits of adults. Families even prepare platefuls of their loved one’s favourite meals for their short time back on earth.

Offering built over a child's grave in Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán, decorated with marigold flowers, sugar skulls, fruit, toy cars and sweets

Toys and sweets are offered to the spirits of children

All this may sound morbid, but Día de Muertos is far from a day of moping and mourning. Families gather to remember those they’ve lost, not with sadness but with songs, stories and laughter. The foods from the offerings are eaten, music played and memories shared.

Marigold petals and tall candles decorate graves in Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán

Marigold petals and candles decorate graves in Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán

To outsiders, this lack of solemnity may even seem disrespectful. But as a friend explained, “When someone you love dies, it affects you every day, so why would you be sad on the one day they’re back here with you?”

When you look at it like that, it’s hard to argue that the Day of the Dead is anything but beautiful. But how can it possibly comfort those who – like me – don’t believe in heaven, souls or anything else beyond this world?

Colourful wreaths and flower-covered crosses mark graves

Colourful wreaths and armfuls of flowers are piled high on graves

As an atheist, I spent my first year in Mexico looking at Día de Muertos from the outside in; as something only other people believed in. The religious. The spiritual. Those brought up in Mexican culture. Another couple of years on, though, and I was starting to understand that this remembrance is much more than merely symbolic.

A huge grid-shaped ofrenda in a graveyard in Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán, covered with orange cempasúchil flowers and topped with crosses

This towering ofrenda is covered with cempasúchil flowers and topped with crosses

Believe in what you will, let’s say all those who ever cared about a particular person gather together in one place to remember them by sharing their most vivid and vibrant memories. Surely then, for that one moment at least, that person’s spirit really is there?

An offering covered in marigolds, bananas, pan de muerto bread and sugar skulls

Sugar skulls and pan de muerto are a sweet reminder that life is fleeting

And so, while I have endless wishes for my life, I now have only one for my death: let me die like a Mexican. When I’m gone – with any luck many years from now – let me be remembered as Mexicans are.

Let bright orange blossoms, the gentle glow of candles and the smell of my favourite foods guide me home. Let me be brought back to life once a year through the love and laughter of those who knew me. Let my memory bring joy to anyone I leave behind.

If that’s not life after death, I don’t know what is.


About claritamannion

Lancashire / Catalunya / México / Netherlands. Copywriter, linguist, avid reader. Travel lover, foodie, amateur photographer. Keen swimmer, football fan, SPN family.

This entry was posted in Exploring Mexico, Travel, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to Let me die like a Mexican

  1. A beautiful article, thanks for sharing!!!

  2. Wonderfully written piece about this beautiful tradition!

  3. Marguerite says:

    Great article.

  4. Lucinda Johnsen says:

    Great description of the celebration and its meaning.

  5. Beautiful post with a very interesting point of view!

  6. This is a great column. Peter Winckers posted it and I shared on my Facebook site. In less than two days I have had 100+ likes AND 171 shares. I have never had this many likes and shares! My friends, like myself, loved your thoughts and writing. Will continue to follow you.

  7. Reblogged this on My Heart of Mexico and commented:
    I’ve written about what the Day of the Dead means for us Mexicans, but this time I will share another point of view. Meet Clarita Mannion and this is how she embraced the Day of the Dead, from the outside in.

  8. Suzanne Knowlton says:

    Thank you for this inside look of the celebration of life and death. Being new as a resident and recently losing someone you love, I am finding this first Day of the Dead difficult. I hope I will start seeing and through the eyes of the Mexican Mayans around me and it will help heal the heavy heart that I carry.

  9. CM says:

    “Let me die like a Mexican: embracing the Day of the Dead” is beautiful, heartfelt and so meaningful. I did not know it was also a celebration of the return of loved ones. Diversity of cultures is wonderful and there is so much to learn.

    • Mireya says:

      The celebration of the return of loved ones has always been the main sense of our tradition (I am mexican). That’s why we laugh/ mock at death, because there are no means our loved ones are separated or taken away from the ones that stay on Earth. Death so, is another reason of partying and celebrating we are still alive until the day we have to cross the other dimension and move on. Congrats for the person who wrote such a clear article, I am not a follower of any religion either, but I love my traditions and I am so thankful someone can really appreciate the deep philosophy behind them.

  10. MARTIN KAPLAN says:

    I never knew what the “Day of the Dead” actually was…It’s beautiful, and full of love and good memories. I love the thought, and I too would want those I’ve loved to have the pleasure implicit in such “happening”.

  11. Reblogged this on sherriemiranda1 and commented:
    If I were still teaching full time, my students would be writing a letter to a loved one who has died. And I’d be writing to my mom … 😉 ❤
    Peace, love & remembrance,

  12. Miguel Ramirez says:

    Salud Clarita. 🍷

  13. Jm Motta says:

    Thank you for this article. Many mexicans like myselft appreciate it. God Bless the atheist 😛 Saludos from Zacatecas Mexico. !!

  14. Adrian Fragoso says:

    This article is beautifully written. It made me cry and smile at the same time. Thank you for this.

  15. JV Toledo says:

    Beautiful and very eloquent article. I’m Mexican but I’m an agnostic person so I have tried to live my life in a secular way which means I don’t celebrate any party rooted in religious beliefs. However, after I have read your article… I might give a second thought to these traditions.

  16. Angel says:

    I’m from the town where you took the photos, could you please specify that the tradition shown in the photos is not the same all over the country.

    Great article, love it. ❤

  17. Diana Gama says:

    Beautiful article!!!

  18. Shirley says:

    Beautiful article! We Chinese share a lot of common way to celebrate the day of death as the Mexicans’ too.

  19. Kim Lopez says:

    A heart felt article much appreciated. Thank you so much for sharing.
    With love my dear friend of so many years.

  20. Very nice 🙂 Thank you. You may enjoy my own recent blog post, with a similar marvel at these traditions. DDLM is truly one of the most beautiful times to live in Mexico!

  21. Pingback: Day of the Dead / Día de Muertos – globalabo
  22. Pingback: Let me die like a Mexican | The Mazatlán Post
  23. Andrew says:

    In essence Day of the Dead in Mexico is similar to that of the Celtic festival Samhuin, when ancestors and those friends and relatives have crossed to the beyond are rembered and offerings made. /|\

  24. Katie says:

    Well written and beautifully expressed…

  25. Alex says:

    Lovely article. But please, if you are going to write about this most Mexican of traditions, please reference it correctly. It’s “Dia de los Muertos,” and not “Dia de Muertos.”

  26. Roslyn says:

    Absolutely beautifully written

  27. Hijisina says:

    As a Mexicanadian ( Mexican by birth, Canadian by Love) living in beautiful Canada with my husband and kids, I would like to tell you that your words are very touching, colorful and vibrant. Thank you so much for bringing us so many memories of our families, traditions and loved ones that are in Heaven,with your poetic writing and heartfelt thoughts. May God and Our Holy Mother Maria de Guadalupe bless you always. Cempazuchitl, lots of hugs and tequila for you and your beloved ones. =)

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