The Impressionist.


Death is not so scary now.

Coco has won the award for best animated feature at the 2018 Oscars. The film not only tells a touching story of a boy pursuing his dream of becoming a musician, but conveys the Mexican perception of death.

The Day of the Dead, with its vibrant display of light and color, gathers family and friends to pay remembrance to the spirit of their loved ones. During the festival, people put up altars in their houses that are decorated with photos of the dead, along with skulls and marigold flowers. They also dress up as skeletons, hold parades and parties, sing, and dance. People pay tribute to the decreased by telling stories to help keep their memory alive, as well as visiting and decorating their graves, where they might sing all night.

dead1 Día de los Muertos Celebration by Jaredzimmerman (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Is it the same as Halloween?

No, it’s not a Mexican version of Halloween. While it coincides with Halloween, the two annual events are different in traditions and tone.

Halloween is a dark night of terror and mischief, whereas the Day of the Dead is a colourful and life-affirming celebration that unfolds within three days. The theme is death, but the point is to demonstrate love and respect for deceased family members.


The Day of the Dead originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua peoples, who considered mourning the dead disrespectful.

For these pre-Hispanic cultures, death was a natural phase of life. The dead were still members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit—and during the Day of the Dead, are temporarily returned to Earth. Today’s celebration is a mashup of pre-Hispanic religious rites and Christian feasts. 

In 2008, UNESCO recognized the importance of Día de los Muertos by adding the holiday to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The holiday is a reaffirmation of indigenous life.

Altar (ofrenda)

Altars are built in private homes and cemeteries. They are not for worshipping, but to welcome spirits back to the realm of the living.

They are loaded with offerings such as pan de muerto (a sweet, sugar- covered glazed bread), sugar skulls, family photos, and a candle for each dead relative. If one of the spirits is a child, you might find small toys on the altar.

dead1 Altar by Carolina Díaz (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Marigold (Cempasúchil or ‘flower of the dead’)

Marigolds are the main flowers used to decorate the altar. Flower trails are created using the marigold petals that lead up to the gravestones of the deceased to guide them home.

dead1 Marigold by Anne Karakash


A dapper-looking skeleton figure with a fancy hat and dress. The Catrina was created in the 1900s by a cartoonist called José Guadalupe Posada.

dead1 Catrina by El Comandante (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Pierced paper (Papel Picado)

Mexican paper craft. Artisans stack colored tissue paper in dozens of layers, then perforate the layers with hammer and chisel points.

It is not used exclusively during the Day of the Dead, but it plays an important role in the holiday. Draped around altars and in the streets, the art represents the wind and the fragility of life.

Allig Papel picado by timlewisnm (CC BY-SA 2.0)