During Dia de los Muertos celebrations, people go to cemeteries to be with the souls of the departed and build private altars containing the favorite foods and beverages, as well as photos and memorabilia of the departed. The intent is to encourage visits by the souls to hear the prayers and the comments of the living directed to them. Celebrations can take a humorous tone, as celebrants remember funny anecdotes about the departed.
Plans for the day are made throughout the year, including gathering the items to be offered to the dead. During the three-day period, families usually clean and decorate graves. Most visit the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried and decorate their graves with orange Mexican marigolds called cempasúchil. These flowers are thought to attract souls of the dead.
Toys are brought for dead children and bottles of tequila, mezcal, pulque or jars of atole for adults. Families will also place trinkets or the deceased’s favorite candies on the grave. Ofrendas (offerings) are also put in homes, usually with foods such as candied pumpkin, pan de muerto (dead bread), sugar skulls. The offerings are left out in the homes as a welcoming gesture for the deceased. Some people believe the spirits of the dead eat the “spiritual essence” of the food, so although the celebrators eat the food after the festivities, they believe it lacks nutritional value. Pillows and blankets are left out so the deceased can rest after their long journey. In some parts of Mexico, people spend all night beside the graves of their relatives. In many places, people have picnics at the grave site, as well.
Some families build altars or small shrines in their homes. These usually have a cross , statues or pictures of the Virgon Mary, pictures of deceased relatives and other persons, scores of candles and an ofrenda. Traditionally, families spend some time around the altar, praying and telling stories about the deceased.
A common symbol of the holiday is the skull, which celebrants represent in masks, called calacas (skeleton) and foods such as sugar or chocolate skulls inscribed with the name of the recipient on the forehead. Sugar skulls can be given to both the living and the dead. Other holiday foods include pan de muerto, a sweet, egg bread made in various shapes from plain rounds to skulls and rabbits, often decorated with white frosting to look like twisted bones.
Historian, Harley Owners Club, Kingwood, Texas Chapter
Carlos Miller, The Arizona Republic
Gerald Erichsen, About.com