Ascension Church

The Day of the Dead Tradition

The Day of the Dead or, el Día de los Muertos, is celebrated throughout Mexico and around the world in other cultures. The celebration focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died.

In Mexico, this fiesta, for it is a celebration of life, traditionally takes place in connection with the Catholic feast days of All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2).


Traditions connected with the holiday include building private altars honoring the deceased using sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and drinks of the departed and visiting graves with these as gifts. They also leave possessions of the deceased.


These altars and the festivities that are a part of this tradition — such as repainting tombs in bright colors, having masses of remembrance in cemeteries and creating a subdued picnic atmosphere among the graves — remind the deceased that they are not forgotten. For the living, it is a time to remember our loved ones, to welcome their spirits among us and to celebrate memories of the deceased.


Scholars trace the origins of the modern Mexican holiday to indigenous observances dating back hundreds of years and to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl. Today, similar celebrations take place around the world as people gather at cemeteries to pray for their beloved dead.


Elements of the Altar of the Dead and their meaning:


Candles: Flame = “light”, faith & hope. Reminds us of the ascension of the spirit.

Resin/Incense: Offered by the natives to their gods; it is an element that accompanies prayer and praise. Fragrance is a sign of reverence; smoke a sign of passing from life to death.

Flowers: It is thought that the fragrances and colors help the spirit in its ascent to heaven; symbol of festivity.

Bread: symbol of fraternal offering; “Body of Christ”; special bread is made just for this celebration.

Plate with favorite foods: Represents loving remembrance of the deceased and “nourishment” for the soul.

Fruit: Offering provided by nature; “nourishment” for the souls that come to taste their “smells.”

Photos & religious icons/statues: Remembrance of loved ones & saints to whom they had a devotion, or to whom the family members ask for intercession.



You are invited to bring photos of your deceased loved ones to place on our Altars of the Dead; please label the back with your name and contact information.


Sources: Office of Hispanic Ministry, Diocese of Grand Rapids, MI. Journey, 10/2007, p.10-11, and adaptations of