Festivals of the Dead Around the World

In the United States, Halloween is mostly about candy, but elsewhere in the world celebrations honoring the departed have a spiritual meaning

Throwing money into the air during the celebration of the Hungry Ghost Festival. (© Ivan Damanik/NurPhoto/Corbis)

Día de los Muertos

Like Halloween, El Día de los Muertos is the product of ancient ritual mixed with Christian doctrine. Celebrated throughout Latin America—and by Mexican-Americans in the United States—it's most heavily associated with Mexico, where it began. Día de los Muertos actually takes place over two days, All Saints Day on November 1 and All Souls Day on November 2. The celebration emphasizes celebrating the lives of the deceased, complete with food, parades, dances and parties. Revelers believe that on Día de los Muertos, the spirits of the dead return to take part in the celebrations alongside the living.

To celebrate, people also decorate and clean the graves of deceased family members, removing weeds and debris and placing things that the deceased enjoyed while alive—food, drink and other offerings—at the grave site. A photo of the deceased is also added to the grave, creating a kind of altar. Pan de muerto, a sweet "bread of the dead," is another important part of the holiday—families bake loaves, meant to look like a pile of bones, to place on graves as well. The holiday is marked with bright, vivid colors, as well as images of skeletons and skulls, a remnant of an Aztec tradition where skulls were used during rituals to symbolize death and rebirth.

One of the best places to experience the vibrant holiday is Mixquic, a community southwest of Mexico City's center. The area—which retains strong ties to its indigenous history—is famous for its Día de los Muertos celebrations, with vendors setting up stalls in the streets days before November 1. During the holiday, Mixquic's cemetery comes alive with vibrant colors as residents create beautiful altars, using flowers and other decorations, around the graves.


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