Adopting Día de los Muertos into My Family Tradition


Cary Sweeney
October 2021

My family lost several loved ones unexpectedly within a short amount of time - a sister at 42, a brother at 50, and both mothers in their early seventies. Grief is difficult and none of us had experienced so much at one time in our lives. After our sister passed, we didn’t have a memorial service until much later in the year, and without this rite of passage I found we were a little stuck. I think we didn't know what to do with our grief. So, I lit a candle and placed it next to a picture of her with a couple of her favorite things like SweeTarts candy and a flower. Then I added a funny birthday card that she had sent me years ago. It opened our hearts and we found ourselves feeling a little lighter.

Día de Muertos (also known as Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead) is a tradition rooted in Mexican heritage going back some 3,000 years, to the rituals honoring the dead in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. It is celebrated November 1 and November 2 in contemporary Mexico and among those of Mexican heritage in the United States and around the world. I was drawn to this holiday during a time of deep grief because of its tradition of bringing together family and friends to celebrate the life of their loved ones who have died. Traditions include building altars (ofrendas) with things loved most by the loved one, like foods and beverages, and visiting graves with these items.

In San Francisco, there is a large community gathering called the Festival of Altars which includes a large processional with performances of Aztec and other traditional dance leading to ofrendas in the park. The beat of the drums and the lively spirit of the procession with people carrying candles, wearing decorative masks and pictures of their loved ones can be cathartic and joyous as you move along together.

During the pandemic many traditional funeral services were postponed or attended remotely, taking away one of the primary ways we process grief of our loved ones in America. A celebration similar to Day of the Dead can provide a healing substitute for these traditional services. Grief is an ongoing process, and so year after year it’s helpful for my family to look forward to the Día de los Muertos celebration when we set up our altar and prepare our loved ones favorite food and drink, laugh and share stories. I am thankful for the influence of the Mexican community for sharing this joyous and healing celebration, Día de Muertos.

Publication date: 
October 1, 2021
Publication type: 
Journal Article