The Art of Dia de Muertos

Creativity is central in every part of the Dia de Muertos holiday, a time when many in Latin America and North America remember departed loved ones. Families use this time to come together, sharing memories, as well as foods. An altar is created and set with the deceased’s favorite foods, drinks, perhaps a photo, and decorated with cut paper banners, incense burners, and other revered objects, such as religious statues and images. This is where the creativity explodes.

Altar inside the former taller (workshop) of Master Artist Francisco Toledo, depicted in the large photo featured in the center.

The altars can be a simple affair, with a photo and some cempasuchil, fragrant flowers that look like marigolds. Most altars found in homes and businesses in Mexico have several levels that signify the realms of existence. Elaborate altars begin with an intricate design created on the ground, often with flower petals, although some altars will have designs created with the different colors of corn. The first level may include an incense burner, so the spirits can find their way back through smell. Candles provide light, and vessels of water can refresh the spirits after they arrive.

Oaxaca Centro altar with floor decoration using various colors of corn. The floor decorations are called tapetes.

Special breads are made during this time. Pan de Muertos features bread dough fashioned into the shape of bones and sprinkled with sugar. The breads are delicately seasoned with orange water and placed on the altars as offerings.

In Mexico’s state of Oaxaca , the town of Mitla was named from the Nahuatl as Mictlan, loosely translated as “place of the dead.” The pan de Muertos in this town is uniquely decorated with sugar designs.

Busy bakery prior to Dia de Muertos

Families visit the cemeteries during this time to clean and decorate the graves of the departed family members. Abundant flowers, candles, and incense guide the spirits back to return this one night, kept alive through the families’ memory and shared stories.

Small cemetery outside of Oaxaca City on the night of Dia de Muertos.

All photos copyright © 2022: Linda Marston-Reid

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