The Day of the Dead (or Día de Muertos in Spanish) is one of the most traditional celebrations in Mexico. The concept behind it is to celebrate the circle of life by remembering the lives of those who are no longer among us. The importance of the festivity is such that, in 2003, UNESCO included it on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
There’s a belief that during the first two days of November those who have passed away come back to the world of the living and enjoy all of the festivities their loved ones prepared for them. This is the reason behind so many of the traditions that circle this celebration. Since late October, numerous Mexican families set in their homes “ofrendas,” which are altars that pay tribute to their relatives that have passed away. These altars, covered in flowers, candles and food, are also placed in public places, museums, schools and in cemeteries.
Speaking of cemeteries, one of the biggest traditions is to visit the grave sites during these days, a ritual that has existed since the early 19th century. Several people travel to some of the biggest and more popular ones, while others visit the tombs of their late relatives and decorate them with pierced papers (papel picado), colorful flowers, food, pictures, candy, and even music. Those who visit their loved ones’ graves usually arrive on the Day of All Saints (Nov. 1) and don't leave until the next day, which is precisely the Day of the Dead.
Whatever the reason, cemeteries during these days are a spectacular adventure. These places receive thousands of visitors, are covered in light and color, and have a unique essence, full of life, celebration, and energy.
This is one of the most visited destinations during the Day of the Dead. According to information from Airbnb, last year this town received 114% more visitors than the previous year, which says a lot about the popularity it has gained. The local graveyard is full of altars, and the tombs are covered in the iconic orange Mexican marigold. After visiting the cemetery, people go to the lake where several boats travel from Patzcuaro to the island of Janitzio in a procession to honor their ancestors in what they call “the dance of the fishermen.” The lake becomes an amazing scene, completely covered in light with countless candles showing the way for the boats. On the island, every year a public celebration is offered, with traditional dance, music and food.
Two of the most visited cemeteries in the country are located in the capital. Together, the Panteón San Andres Mixquic, and the Panteón de Dolores receive a million and a half people each year during the season.
Located south of the city, the graveyard of San Andres Mixquic, which also used to be a convent, has become a must visit destination for both locals and travelers. Impressive altars with several layers are placed along the tombs on Oct. 31. However, it’s not until Nov. 2 when it really comes alive; that night large candles accompany the colorful flowers, and thousands of people bring their own candles to walk around the tombs in what is called “la Alumbrada” (the illumination). The idea behind this event is that the living will show the way for the dead, so they can come back for the night and enjoy everything that was prepared for them.
The other cemetery that receives thousands of people every year is the Panteon Civil de Dolores, but the people who visit this site are quite different from the ones in Mixquic, since here many of the graves belong to famous people. This is the largest graveyard in Latin America, it holds 260,000 tombs and is home to the graves of over 100 Mexican celebrities. Among the resting places visitors usually go to these days are the ones of painter Diego Rivera, singer Agustín Lara, actress Dolores Del Río, and muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros.
Mexico City holds some of the most important grave sites in the country, and even tough they don’t receive as many visitors as the ones that were just mentioned, there are two more that are quite popular for those seeking famous resting places. The Panteón Español has existed for over 100 years and here, between its gothic architecture, lies the body of Cantinflas, one of the most cherished actors of Mexican cinema. In this graveyard there’s also an iconic tomb visited by many believers, the one of Saint Caroline, who’s visited by people who are looking for love. The other important cemetery is the Panteón Jardín which holds the tombs of the renowned singer Jorge Negrete, the well-known actor Tin Tan, and Pedro Infante. Although the site receives many visitors in November that’s not its peak, which is actually on April 15 when people bring mariachis to Infante’s tomb for his solemn anniversary.
This city is one of the most festive ones in the country. Here, people celebrate the Festival of Skeletons (Festival de las Calaveras) to honor José Guadalupe Posada, the artist who created the famous Catrina, which is the skeleton wearing the elegant dress and exotic hat that illustrates most Day of the Dead celebrations. The artist, who was born in Aguascalientes, has been the heart of the celebration where people dress up as Catrinas to enjoy dance and music, theater plays, gastronomic events, and a large parade. Within the celebration that lasts for 10 days there are night visits to the local grave sites Panteón de la Cruz and Panteón de la Salud. During Day of the Dead there’s a particular visit that’s part of a long walk that starts on the hill Cerro del Muerto (Hill of the Dead) and goes down the streets and through the graveyards which are prepared to receive more than 5,000 people in the procession that’s meant to remember those who are no longer with us.
The Panteón de Belén, one of the most beautiful graveyards in the country, can be found in Guadalajara. The cemetery is currently considered a museum, since it was only active from 1848 to 1896. Nowadays, it has its gates open for visitors who want to admire its architecture and artwork during the day, and who want to feel the chills during the night when they organize tours charged with scary legends. During the Day of the Dead, these night tours go to the next level, with people dressing up as the characters from the legends, and tombs decorated with floral arrangements, candles and elements that add mysticism to the night.
Toluca, Estado de México
Only an hour drive from Mexico City, the city of Toluca has recently gained popularity for its night tours at the cemetery called Panteón de La Soledad. During the nights of late October and early November they organize plays that tell a different story each night, these legends belong to some of the graves that are in this grave site. This way, the night tour is much more than just a walk through the tombs, it becomes a unique experience where visitors may live the stories themselves. Actors appear from behind the tombs and dress up in classic gowns of the early 20th century to entertain the visitors who have stood in line for hours to make sure they have a place in the tour since the entrance is free. Additionally, on Nov. 1 people visit the graveyard holding candles, and decorate their loved ones’ graves, so on Nov. 2 they can participate in a contest that recognizes the best decorations.