How the Day of the Dead celebrates life

Never too far from us.
Never too far from us.
Image: REUTERS/Daniel Becerril
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The dead have returned.

That’s one of the traditional beliefs of the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead: Over two days (Nov. 1 and Nov. 2) each year, deceased loves ones travel back from the spirit world to visit the living. Ofrendas, or offerings on altars, are one of the main ways to entice the dead—and the Google Doodle team has created one of its own.

Day of the Dead commemorations date back thousands of years to the cultures of the Aztec, Toltec, and other indigenous peoples of Mexico. The occasion coincides with the fall maize harvests, once the primary crop in the country, as well as All Saints Day and All Souls Day on the Catholic calendar. And despite the prominence of skulls and elaborate costumes, there is no connection between the Day of the Dead and Halloween.

In fact, Day of the Dead isn’t meant to be spooky at all.

“In its essence, it’s a joyous occasion that’s about dispelling fear and embracing the cycle of life,” Google said about the holiday. The ofrenda, usually built in homes or cemeteries, is at its heart. They are often colorful and feature items to celebrate those who have died as well as invite their spirits to visit. This includes sweet-smelling marigold petals to guide souls to the altar, the favorite food and drink of the deceased, and mementos, including photographs and prized possessions.

The Google Doodle ofrenda also features candles. Google explains: “Burning candles and incense is also customary to set the mood, evoke the spirit world, and serve as a reminder that death is just another part of life and that human connections will always endure.” This was one of the core beliefs of the pre-Hispanic peoples. According to National Geographic, death was embraced as just one phase in the cycle of life, and “the dead were still members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit.”

The importance of Día de los Muertos was globally recognized in 2008, when UNESCO added the celebration to its list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. And just last year, Pixar’s Academy Award-winning movie Coco revolved around the Day of the Dead as an ode to Mexican culture, family, and unification across divides—celebrating life in the face of loss.