Day of the Dead - Celebrate Your Ancestors
I’m often asked, after a long contemplative pause, “So, just what exactly do you do as a genealogist?”
I’m tempted to simply reply – “I find dead people.”
Obviously, I don’t say that because I don’t want to scare anyone. But in reality, that is pretty much what I do. I spend my days looking for dead ancestors and combing records for details about their lives.
Normally that makes me abnormal, but this week we have several holidays celebrating the dead including Halloween, Día de los Muertos (also known as Day of the Dead), All Saints Day, and All Souls Day.
I love Día de los Muertos because it so closely matches my purpose as a genealogist -
keeping our ancestors alive in memory and spirit.
Most people are surprised to learn that Day of the Dead not a Mexican version of Halloween. Day of the Dead starts on October 31st and ends on November 2nd. While it is mainly associated as a Mexican holiday, it is widely celebrated in the Spanish culture and in cities with large Hispanic populations around the world (such as in my hometown of San Diego).
Day of the Dead originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people, who considered mourning the dead disrespectful. Death was seen as a natural phase in the circle of life. The dead were still considered members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit—and during Día de los Muertos, they temporarily returned to Earth.
Later, like most pagan holidays, it absorbed the traditions of the Catholic holidays of All Saint’s Day on November 1st and All Souls Day on November 2nd. Today, this annual event is celebrated with brightly colorful skulls and skeletons. There are many traditions and much symbolism. People gather for parades, festivals, and even in cemeteries to remember friends and family members who have died.
Even if you aren’t Spanish, here are some of my favorite traditions you can incorporate to celebrate and honor your ancestors this Día de los Muertos.
Visit a Cemetery
During Dia de los Muertos, many families visit their loved one’s gravesite. One of the main activities of the holiday is cleaning of the gravesite. Afterwards, they lay colorful flowers and decorations and often bring picnics. In the evening as families and even entire communities gather to pay their respects, candles are lit and musicians can be heard playing.
Take this opportunity to pay your respects and visit the gravesite of one of your loved ones. If you don’t know where they are buried, take the time to locate their final resting places. read my blog.
Do bring some basic items to clean the gravesite such as a scrub brush, rags, water, and gentle cleansers.
Do clear away any debris.
Don’t try to repair or move any damaged headstones.
Do take lots of pictures from all sides of the marker, as well as up close and from a distance.
Don’t forget a blanket, chairs, and a picnic to sit gravesite while you remember your ancestor one.
Do upload the photos of the headstone and details to FindaGrave.com.
Cook a Traditional Family Recipe
Pan de Muerto (Spanish for “bread of the dead”) is a traditional sweet roll baked in Mexico in the weeks leading up to Dia de Muertos. The bread is often taken and eaten at the cemetery celebration.
Using bread as an offering for the souls is a Spanish tradition, the Spaniards used to take bread and wine to the cemeteries or churches on All Souls Day as an offering for their dead family members to let them know they remembered them and to ask them for their protection.
Pan de Muerto differs in by region, but the most common type is round and has four to eight sticks of fresh bread on top which resemble human bones. It’s flavored with orange blossom water and covered in sugar. Yum!
Make it yourself this year with this recipe or celebrate your ancestors by making and preserving one of your very own traditional family recipes. Far too often family recipes are literally taken to the grave.
Here are some tips:
Do measure and write down the recipe. Handwritten recipe cards of a nonna’s cookies or grandpa’s barbeque sauce will make treasured holiday gifts!
Do take photos and videos of the process. Watching a loved one make the traditional dish is instructive and priceless.
Don’t forget to scan the recipe and save any photos and video to the cloud as back-up.
Make an Altar
Making an altar (or ofrenda as it is called in Spanish) is a traditional way to invite and honor ancestors during Day of the Dead. Traditional altars are multi-level, colorful, and very symbolic including items representing all four elements of air, water, fire, and earth.
Suggested items to include in your altar:
Photos of the loved one
Some of their favorite objects and personal possessions
Food, such as Bread for the Dead or their favorite foods and spices
Water, and adult beverages, to quench the thirst of spirits who are believed to travel back for this one day
Colorful cut out paper
Flowers, marigolds and flower petals are traditional
Candles to attract spirits to the altar
Incense which is used to communicate with the spirit world
Religious objects to represent tradition
The altar is like a living scrapbook. Talk with your family members about what they think should be included and you just might discover something new about your ancestor. It’s also a wonderful way to show and tell an ancestor’s story with younger children.