Let me die like a Mexican

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.


All images copyright of Lauren Mannion.

58 thoughts on “Let me die like a Mexican

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

      1. Thanks for sharing one of The most beatiful traditions in my Country, while a was reading your post, it let me think The true meaning of this traditions.

        Fantastic photos that You choose for The post, in My experience foreign people feel unconfortabled with The idea of Graveyards covered with flowers and meals. But let me complete The concept; What The families are trying to do id to, make feel The Lost ones’s like they are actually in Home. Thats why we make children visit The Graveyards Even they eat the dishes with their Lost ones. They spend many hours there making company just in The place of The last rest of our loving ones.

      2. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. All of the photos are also mine, mostly taken in Michoacán, apart from the header photo which I took in the Zócalo in DF. This is such a beautiful and meaningful tradition and I’m so happy I got to experience it in México. I lost two grandparents this year and just made my first ofrenda at home last night 💜

  3. “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.

    1. 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.

  4. 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”.

  5. 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.

  6. 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. ❤

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

  8. 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!

  9. 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. /|\

  10. 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.”

    1. Thanks for reading. In Mexico City, where I lived, and in the national press, it is referred to universally as Día de Muertos. I can’t speak for other parts of Mexico but “Día de los Muertos” seems to be more of a US thing – this was even addressed in the opening lines of the Spanish version of Coco.

      1. Nothing wrong saying the one or the other. I as a Mexican from chihuahua can say that most of those I know say Dia de Muertos or wish one another feliz día de muertos. Lovely article. It is easy to forget this thanks for remind me that I also want to die as a Mexican : )

  11. 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. =)

  12. What a great article There are things that maybe only as Mexican we can understand. Laugh and cry are always attach playing a singular sound in our hearts. We know our beloved ones do not want to look us sad not even due to their depart. My father was a really happy Man , he used to dance and sing all day long alone or with us. My Grandmother also like dance, music and drink beer. And if I think all my relatives liked the jolgorio, So If they come day that day for a little I want we enjoy together a happy frame time son we need celebrate they come to visit us. I did not found your name and photo in this article. But I invite not just die like a Mexican but live as a Mexican because even in the darkest we find love,faith and a lot of laugh. If you tell me your name and if I know about your depart some day I will include you at my Altar. Because in Mexico where we eat 2 we can eat 10. Guille

    1. Gracias Guille por tu comentario y por haber leído el artículo…me alegro que te haya gustado. Día de Muertos really means a lot to me, and now even more than ever since I lost two grandparents this year – one very recently. I’m making my first ofrenda at home and hoping to feel their presence with me in the coming days. Un abrazo!

  13. Mexico beautiful and loved, if I die far from you, tell them that I am sleeping and bring me back to you! This is what one of our favourite song says 🙂 Mexico lindo y querido, si muero lejos de ti que digan que estoy dormido y que me traigan aquí!”

  14. Thank you for your colorful words, this is one of the hardest traditions to explain to a foreign but I am grateful you took the time to understand it and have the luck to find a family that took you in, you don’t believe in things until you do but, if you open you heart and close your eyes, you will feel the energy of your loved ones embracing you.

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to read and to leave this lovely comment. I lost two grandparents this year, one very recently, and decided to make an ofrenda at home for the first time. The act of choosing what to include and physically setting everything out has made me feel so close to them again.

  15. I love this article. That’s exactly how I feel too.
    We live in Oaxaca now and have seen many Day of the Dead celebrations. Once I experienced the few of them, it easily changed my perception of death. It improved it immensely. It seems so much healthier now.
    What seems morbid in the “western world” seems joyous in this Mexican World w/ a much healthier outlook. Death doesn’t seem quite so final anymore.
    I know that for a little while at least, I will be remembered by a few people; hopefully, they’ll have fun when doing it, and why not? Life has been joyous for me.

  16. I found your wonderful essay several years ago and revisit it each October as I set up my ofrendas in memory of loved ones. I had the opportunity to celebrate Dia de Los Muertos in San Miguel de Allende in 2015, and I’ll never forget that special experience. I can’t imagine anything this Danish/Welsh/Englis/Irish old woman would love more than dying like a Mexican. Thank you for expressing your thoughts on this tradition so eloquently.

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