The Day of the Dead — or El Día de Los Muertos—is a remembrance and celebration of the lives of beloved family and friends who have gone before us. It originated in ancient Aztec cultures, but the tradition reflects the Catholic idea of the “communion of saints,” said Armando Cervantes, the director of Youth & Adults and the Hispanic Ministry in the
Diocese of Orange. It brings together the saints among the living and the dead for a few days of food, music and memories.
Hispanic churches in communities throughout Orange County uphold the traditions of Día de Los Muertos that have been long practiced in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Whole families visit the graves of loved ones who have died, bringing food, flowers and live music to joyfully remember the lives of the departed so they are never forgotten. In Mexico, this is a multiday celebration. Typically, November 1 is the day of celebrating children who have died, and November 2 celebrates adults who have died.
“It makes them come alive, which very much connects with what the Catholic church teaches us, that a person who dies isn’t gone but has become part of the community of saints,” said Cervantes. “We recognize the many faith-filled saints who’ve gone before us and who are still part of our family.”
Another tradition for this day is to create altars for the dead in homes and in churches—often elaborate memorials that include photos, bread, candles, mementos and flowers (typically marigolds which are believed to attract souls to the altar).
The Diocese of Orange celebrated the Day of the Dead by holding Mass at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in Orange on October 30, which has an outdoor altar that was donated by the Sisters of St. Joseph. Surrounded by far-reaching views of hills and trees, prayers were offered for all who have passed away, followed by music, food, dancing and face painting in a nearly all-day family event.
Thinking of dead relatives and friends could be a mournful occasion, but this day is quite the opposite, Cervantes said. “The way I grew up, we had a party to celebrate the lives of loved ones. For me it was my grandma. I never got to meet her but because of the celebrations—we ate her favorite food, drank her favorite drinks and I heard stories about her—now, I can tell you all about my grandma. To me, day of the dead brings the people forth.”
He remembers that sometimes his mother would cry remembering her mother, but they were “happy tears,” Cervantes said, “because she got to share memories of my grandma with us. I hope I can do the same for my children.”
Every family creates its own traditions for Día de Los Muertos. “For my family, the Rosary was mandatory,” Cervantes said. He adds that some families bring an entire mariachi band to the cemetery to sing and play music in honor of the dead. Some bring the alcohol drink their loved ones enjoyed the most while other families bring plates of food. Candy, masks and dolls in the shapes of skeletons and skulls are associated with Día de Los Muertos.
“There is no one right way to celebrate,” Cervantes said. “It’s a personal experience, which makes it beautiful.”
The tradition began, say historians, with the Aztecs thousands of years ago who worshipped the king and queen of the underworld. The Spanish fused that day with the Catholic All Souls’ Day, which resulted in El Día de Los Muertos. Today, Halloween is a secular version, but its sense of fun and community is also part of Día de Los Muertos. “Why not celebrate the person who has died and remember their lives?” said Cervantes.
Primarily in Mexico but also in other Latin American countries, Día de Los Muertos is celebrated with fireworks, huge gatherings in cemeteries, detailed remembrance altars erected in city squares and parades of people dressed as skeletons streaming through the streets. The idea is that on this day, departed souls might return to earth and briefly come alive, hopefully bringing prosperity.
This was central to the plot of the animated 2017 movie Coco which showed the importance of family connections in celebrating Día de Los Muertos. In the movie, Miguel, a young boy who yearns to be a musician, travels to the Land of the Dead and ultimately reconciles an injustice in his family’s past that affirms his own musical talent.
All Souls’ Day, which is November 1, is a Roman Catholic holy day, when Catholics are encouraged to pray for the souls of people who have died but are still undergoing purification— praying for them will help them reach heaven. This day is also suggested as a time for Catholics to remember their commitment to lead holy lives.