A family visit

My grandparents will be here soon! Can’t wait to see them 💜🕯️🌸”

It was late October and I was living in Mexico City when I read a workmate’s excited Facebook post about an upcoming family visit. Over lunch the next day, I asked if her relatives lived far away and when they were arriving. She laughed and told me, “I was talking about Day of the Dead.”

Sugar skulls of all sizes in a department store

I’d already experienced DĂ­a de Muertos during my first year in Mexico. I’d seen the colourful paper decorations and sugar skulls, joined the office celebrations and visited the giant ofrendas at the university campus. I thought I knew what the day was all about. But this was something totally unexpected.

It sounds strange to say about a festival centred around death, but I had no idea it was taken quite so seriously. I knew this was a time to remember the dead through happy memories of their lives. What I hadn’t realised is that people truly believe their lost loved ones return for the day.

Bright flowers and intricate paper decorations are key parts of an ofrenda

That conversation in the work canteen helped me see Day of the Dead in a whole new light – one I wrote about here a few years later. I was absolutely captivated by the thought that, by gathering together and remembering someone in the most joyful and vivid manner, you were bringing them back to life in a way.

This newfound understanding was put to the test in 2019, when I made my first real ofrenda. It wasn’t much of an offering. I wasn’t even sure I should be doing it, but I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. I’d lost two beloved grandparents that year, one of them just a few weeks earlier, and this seemed like a symbolic way to externalise my grief.

My first tentative attempt at an ofrenda

I hesitated until the last minute before finally deciding to go for it. I dug out some old family photos, candles and a few Mexican ceramics, and bought some cheap flowers on my way home from work. If nothing else, I thought the time spent putting it together would be time spent remembering my loved ones.

But somehow once I’d thrown it all together on a small table in the hallway, I was filled with warmth and joy. Every time I passed, I basked in the glowing lights and sweet scent, and saw my grandparents’ faces smiling back at me. It was a space to celebrate them and their love, to invite them into my home in another country and to honour their memory. In short, it meant a lot more than I ever expected.

Candles and flowers greeted me in the hallway

The following year I didn’t hesitate. After the isolation of 2020, the idea of surrounding myself with so much beauty and love was irresistable. This time my ofrenda took pride of place on the bookcase in my living room. I’d stocked up on paper decorations on my last trip to Mexico, and managed to order sugar skulls and pan de muerto from a local Mexican baker.

Alongside the traditional candles, salt, water and bunches of flowers, I added a bottle of Irish whiskey, my grandma’s ring, a birdwatching book my grandad gave me. Tiny glimpses of their life on earth.

My grandad Bri beaming at me from his photo

Looking at the warm smiles and shining eyes in their photos, I had a sudden moment of realisation. I was the one who took those photos in the first place – so they really were smiling at me. This little moment of magic was the final touch I needed to fully understand what this day means.

Last year’s ofrenda

We spent 2nd November together. Alone in my house, I talked to them, took comfort in happy memories and made my peace with not having been there in their final hours. That evening, I raised a glass to them all and said goodbye until the next year.

Now once again it’s late October, my grandparents will be here soon and I can’t wait to see them.

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, DĂ­a 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 DĂ­a 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 cempasĂşchil 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.