I visited San Miguel de Allende for their Dias de los Muertos celebrations this year, not for the first (nor hopefully the last) time. San Miguel is a beautiful small city in central Mexico, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its preserved 17th and 18th century town center and many lovely churches. The Centro area a feast for the eye, colorful and very walkable; no car is necessary or desirable to fully enjoy it.
The Day(s) of the Dead festivities may be underway much in advance of their observance, but evidence of preparations become public on All Hallows Eve (Halloween) as private altars (oftendas) appear in homes, stores, and on the streets around town. In Mexico, All Saints Day (November 1st) and All Souls’ Day (November 2nd) focus on the remembrance of family members and friends who have died, and the bonds that continue to be held between the spirits of the living and the dead. Families go to cemeteries to clean and decorate the graves of the deceased, covering them with marigolds (the flowers of the dead), muertos (bread of the dead), and favorite foods, drinks and possessions of those who are gone. Some grave adornments are incredibly elaborate, some very simple, and it is common to see family members surrounding a grave site, accompanied by a mariachi band to help celebrate the life of their loved one. A priest may be summoned for graveside prayers, and picnics permit staying and visiting with the dead for as long as one wishes.
The private altars that are built around town encourage a visit from those living in the spirit world, and include elements important to an invitation to return: water for the soul’s thirst, salt to purify the soul and frighten away bad spirits, candles to guide the soul to its old home, flowers, sugar in the form of skulls or favorite animals, cut paper decorations, fruits and nuts, traditional foods, and photos of the deceased. The altars are all very personal, and quite beautiful.
These festivities are said to be based on ancient cultural practices which have become blended over time with local religious traditions. I loved the observance, and admired the sense of celebration offered as an affirmation of the mystical experience connecting life and death, in contrast to the tradition of cultural denial with which I am most familiar.
More photos are available through Flickr link.