The Catholic Church officially recognizes the November 1 and 2 celebrations of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. While the Dia de los Muertos Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico and Latin America gets much of the news coverage, other cultures also observe this tribute to our beloved departed.
The Church influenced these observances throughout many cultures. In New Orleans, you see the French and Spanish influence in the city’s above-ground mausoleums. Families visit their cemetery crypts prior to Halloween to give them a fresh coat of plaster and make sure everything is in good shape. Then they’ll return on November 1 and 2 to commune with their dead, often bringing picnics to feed the living.
It’s not just Catholics who celebrate. Day of the Dead originally came from ancient Meso-American cultures, which range from Mexico to Honduras and El Salvador.
Starting with the Halloween connection, going back about 3,000 years, the ancient Celtic people believed that on October 31, the boundary between the living and the dead dissolved, allowing spirits of the deceased to cross over into the living world.
To combat the Druid festival Samhain (pronounced Sow-wen) held this time of year, the Catholic Church moved All Saints’ Day – a.k.a. All Hallows’ Day – from mid-May to November 1. Halloween comes from abbreviating All Hallows’ Even, the evening before the day.
Meanwhile, over in the Western Hemisphere, indigenous peoples such as the Aztec, Maya, Olmec, Toltec and other tribes in Mexico held rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors during the month of August. It corresponded with a festival dedicated to a goddess called Mictecacihuatl, The Lady of the Dead.
When Catholic Spanish Conquistadors came to the New World more than 500 years ago, they tried to eradicate these native rituals that seemed to mock death and symbolized death and rebirth.
The ancient rituals refused to die in the face of forced conversion. So to make the ritual more Christian, the Spaniards moved it to correspond with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, November 1 and 2. In Mexico, Dia De Los Muertos as it is known in Spanish, often honors deceased children and infants on the first day, and deceased adults on the second day.
The early Meso-American attitude was that life is a dream, and death is the awakening to real life. The dead are considered to have semi-divine status, given permission to return once a year. They are to be welcomed, not feared.
How Day of the Dead is Celebrated Worldwide
Funeral directors and cemeterians, experts on various religious and cultural funeral traditions, shared their knowledge at this summer’s International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association University (ICCFA University). Here are their insights from Mexico, Guatemala, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
Carlos Quezada spoke on The Hispanic Culture of Death and Dying in Mexico. Dia de Los Muertos is held on November 1 and 2. Nov. 1 is for celebrating babies, Nov. 2 for adults. The population mocks death by being close to and comfortable with death. The point is to be with the deceased person, laughing and enjoying the moment.
People build altars in homes and cemeteries. The altars pay tribute to the person who died, featuring loved one’s favorite foods, candy, liquor, cigarettes, etc. They include pictures of loved ones, flowers, candles and other symbolic objects. Skulls and skeletons are a common theme.
Events held in the cemeteries in Mexico are very popular. Many non-Hispanic people attend (3,000) to see Aztec dancers, drummers, and elaborate displays. Music is also a big draw, especially mariachi bands. The celebration extends from Central American to South America, although it’s considered a sad day in Brazil.
Andres Aguilar from Guatemala said that they get about 15,000 people visiting at their cemeteries on November 1 and 2. It’s a lot about being with your family, bringing flowers, food, and even dogs. Nov. 1 is Dia de los Todos Santos – the Day of All Saints.
Daniel Thomas, with Forest Lawn Cemetery, Covina Hills, California, was raised in the Philippines. During the country’s Colonial history under Spanish rule (approximately 370 years from 1521-1898), the population came under the influence of Catholicism. Many well-known cathedrals were built there during that time, such as the Veneration of Christ, Santo Nino, the Black Nazarene and Virgin Mary.
Filipinos also have a big All Souls Day celebration on November 1. Activities include visitation to cemetery and cleaning the graves. Families are there for a 24-hour period of time, all night long. Flowers are offered, candles lighted at the grave, prayers said. And the family simply spends time at the cemetery.
It usually starts on the morning of November first. It’s a national holiday with a party atmosphere. People camp out, with food, drink, and games. In the US, there may be a heavy cemetery visitation of Filipino-Americans on the weekends before and after November 1.
“Q” Que Luu, of Oak Hill Funeral Home and Memorial Park in San Jose, CA, spoke about Vietnamese Funeral Traditions. Many of the Vietnamese rituals come from the Chinese tradition, and are simplified. They believe death is not the end, that the spirit/soul is still there. They’ll celebrate Day of the Dead with food and family bonding, visiting the cemetery then going home to celebrate. Family and friends are invited to come and tell stories, share food, on the anniversary of the death, every year.
Here’s a lovely short animation that really conveys the meaning of Dia de los Muertos.