In the United States, skeletons, skulls and white painted faces more often than not make you think of haunted houses, creepy monsters and scary stories. Just across the border in Mexico, however, these symbols of death are all about joy and thanksgiving. That’s because Mexican culture celebrates death and the deceased while we often find it difficult to discuss death at all, let alone with comfort and ease.
Many parents struggle to speak to their children about loved ones who have passed, perhaps because the grief is overwhelming or they simply don’t know what to say. Culturally, we see death as something finite and static and there is no crossover between the living and the dead.
The holiday Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, however, gives us a very different perspective on death. Rather than a time of mourning, it’s a celebration of the deceased that originated in Mexico and is now celebrated around the world. The playful, happy essence of Dia de los Muertos offers an alternative way to think about death and opens the door for meaningful conversation with our kids about how we honor people in our lives who have died.
I love this celebration of life and death because it focuses on love, respect, the importance of family, and the idea that those we have lost have not really left us. I thought I knew a lot about this celebration (especially since I just watched Coco), but this article from National Geographic is super helpful in explaining more about the rituals and symbols.
Several days are dedicated to creating altars spilling over with photographs, flowers and candles. Offerings of favorite foods, drinks and personal items of deceased relatives cover the altars or ofrenda. Graves are cleaned and decorated. People dress up in vibrant colors and decorate their homes with colorful tissue paper banners called papel picado in anticipation of a visit from ancestors who have died. Loved ones are remembered, celebrated and invited to come back to spend time with the living for the day.
If there are any family members or close friends you have lost, this is a wonderful opportunity to talk to your kids about them and how to honor their lives. It could be as simple as telling stories about the deceased, remembering their favorite meal or looking through photographs together. For more support on how to talk to kids about death and grieving in an age appropriate way, read How to Explain Death to Children.
If you’re simply interested in learning about and enjoying Dia de los Muertos, there are lots of fun activities you can do as a family. Build your own altar with photographs of loved ones and candles, decorate sugar skulls (not for eating), bake pan de muerto together or decorate with marigolds and skulls, or calaveras.
While engaging in these activities, talk to your kids about death in a way that makes you comfortable and is in line with your family beliefs and practices. The more we talk about death as a part of life, the more mindful and comfortable our kids will be with it. Observing Dia de los Muertos is a wonderful way to learn about Mexican culture and to feel comforted that our deceased loved ones are always in our memories and in our hearts.