The Day of the Dead

The Day of the Dead:
A Sensory Delight

The Day of the Dead delights all of my senses. The usual rotten stench at the entrance to the market is driven out by the scent of thousands of bundles of marigolds and burning copal. Extra stands bursting with flowers, sweets, candles, and breads shoulder out an entire lane of the bus terminal.

Shopping for the Day of the Dead

It’s fun to wander through the stands asking the old ladies how much the candles cost—choosing the candles we want by their traditional, waxy smell. We count how many dead people we will honor and buy half as many foot-long candles as we need because we always cut them in half. We get a couple extra in case we have temporarily forgotten someone.

Photo: cover of Mexico: The Trick is Living HereWhat will the Day of the Dead be like for you when you retire in Mexico?
Click here to see a description of Mexico: The Trick is Living Here, which includes a special photo gallery showing real candy skulls, bread, altars, etc.

I love fingering the candy skulls with sequin eyes, feeling shy because I want to spend money on molded sugar lumps. We flip through the colored tissue paper, choosing designs with skulls and skeletons, deciding on the appropriate blend of colors, which must include lots of dark purple, the traditional color for the Day of the Dead.

I like the way it feels to load our arms with bundles of foot-and-a-half long marigolds of different sized blooms, lacy white accent flowers, and thick, heavy lion’s foot with stems almost as broad as my wrist and convoluted, velvety blooms as big as my fists. Carrying the flowers peeking out of their newspaper wraps, I try to keep the people in the crowd from breaking their stems. My husband limits the number of flower bundles we buy, but I always want more because I love to decorate the altar with them. There is no Day of the Dead without marigolds and velvet lion’s foot.

He chooses the breads that his grandmother always made for her Day of the Dead altars, then asks me what other pieces of bread I want to put out for my ancestors. I imagine them—fondly referred to at this time of year as “my little dead ones” (mis muertitos) enjoying the breads, candies and good smells. I choose breads with pink colored sugar on top that I know they will enjoy.

We get a small newspaper cone with a mixture of copal and other incense in it, so that our dead ones will be able to follow the smell and find their way home.

Heading home on the bus, we sit in the back and relax. I pet the velvety heads of the lion’s foot flowers. They are so solid, yet soft feeling. More like giant cat’s paws than flowers.

Preparing Our Home for the Day of the Dead

When we get home we put the flowers in buckets of water and clear out an area in the front room of our house. We find a big board and something to set it on. We iron our lacy table cloth and put out a few pieces of bread and a couple bouquets of flowers. It’s the night of the 31st, the special night reserved for children. My husband finds a toy and sets it out. He lights one candle, drips wax on the board, and sets the candle up in it. He calls out his little sister’s name.

We watch her little candle flicker as we eat our dinner and chat with our neighbors.

Building the Day of the Dead Altar

The next day, I take over. I spend over an hour on the first of November sitting on the floor in front of the altar, sorting flowers, making bouquets in liter-sized yogurt containers, then stacking the broken blooms up in front of the plastic containers so that they don’t show. I tape tissue paper flags around, artfully scatter petals, lay bread out in traditional pottery bowls, set fruit in temping piles, and place candy skulls. My husband and I walk to the store and buy pop for those ancestors who liked it. He pours a little alcohol into a shot glass. He bums a cigarette from a neighbor who smokes and lays that out for his grandfather. We include a glass of life-giving water. We don’t have any pictures of our ancestors, but we think of them the whole time we are creating their altar.

We don’t eat their treats, but munch on our own pieces of “dead people’s bread” (pan de muertos), washed down with glasses of cold milk.

My favorite step is when we take the ratty flowers, and de-petal them. We sprinkle the orange petals from the altar, right out the door, through the front yard and all of the way out the gate. Sometimes our neighbor comments that our dead people won’t have any trouble finding their way to their altar. The petals are our special Day of the Dead “Welcome Home” sign.

The Special Night Before the Day of the Dead

When the moment comes, we light our copal inside, let the smoke fill the front room, then put the bowl outside the door. The copal always burns out and I spend a lot of time trying to get the charcoal and copal into the right balance. My hair and clothes smell like smoke, which reminds me of happy nights camping with my family.

We each light the candles, setting them up in pools of their own wax. We call out each person’s name. Since there are no photos, our dead people have to use their auditory memories to know where to find us. I know my ancestors aren’t busy. Mine is the only altar for them and they have plenty of time to come in and enjoy the warm, bright glow and golds and purples of their altar.

We turn off the lights and take pictures of our creation. We sit and watch the candles flicker, enjoying the smell of the hot wax. The night is quiet and the crickets sing in the dark outside. We don’t have that many dead people, but the light is still bright enough to read by! We get sleepier and sleepier as the candles slowly burn down. The night is too magical and the whole altar too precarious to sleep. We have to keep an eye on the candles so they don’t catch the whole contraption on fire. As the candles burn down, they create so much warmth that they get wobbly on their feet. We debate blowing them out and going to bed, but just can’t bring ourselves to do it. We can almost feel our dead people there with us, enjoying the light in their honor.

Read about the catrinas of 2007.



  1. Tosha Sanchez Apr 10

    It sounds absolutely beautiful! I can’t wait to experience this with my family.

  2. Julia Taylor Apr 12

    Tosh, You will all love it!
    Kindest Regards, Julia C Taylor

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