Welcoming the Spirits Home

At this time in 2019, my husband and I traveled to Oaxaca City, Mexico to experience the celebration of Dia de los Muertos.

We’ve never been very good at taking selfies.

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday where the souls of deceased relatives join their families for a brief reunion. From October 31 through November 2, the border between the spirit world and the living world opens, allowing the spirits to cross over. The holiday is filled with beautiful symbols, traditions, and imagery. It is a joyful time: the spirits are treated as honored guests as they feast, drink, dance, and play music with their families. Many believe that if you remember them, they never cease to exist.

One of the most recognizable symbols are the alters or “ofrendas” (offerings) that can be found in public places and private homes. Although each colorful alter is unique, they all are decorated with specific components that honor loved ones and provide what they need on the journey to rejoin their families.

Every ofrenda includes the four elements: water, air, earth, and fire. Water is provided so the spirits can quench their thirst after their journey. Air is represented by colorful paper banners.  Earth is represented by food, especially bread. The light from candles helps the spirits find their way. In addition, alters are decorated with pictures of the departed, their favorite foods and drinks, sugar skulls, and marigolds (whose scent and bright orange color help attract souls to the alter).

All of these pictures were taken of ofrendas in public places. The alters created in private homes tend to be much less elaborate, but equally beautiful.

I’m sharing these images from our trip as part of Terri’s Sunday Stills photo challenge, whose theme this week is Indoor/Outdoor Decorations.

Author: Janis @ RetirementallyChallenged.com

My blog is about travel, relationships, photography, and whatever else pops into my head (even, sometimes, issues surrounding retirement and aging).

86 thoughts on “Welcoming the Spirits Home”

  1. Beautiful photos, Janis. This culture has a much healthier relationship with death than our current North American one. Someday I would love to go to Mexico for the Day of the Dead.


  2. Beautiful photos, Janis. How wonderful that you experienced the Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico. Before the pandemic, I used to go to the annual Day of the Dead festival in Toronto. It had similar colourful and elaborate ofrendas created by Mexican artists. I hope it will return next year.

  3. Wow! Those are elaborate. You might want to post a link on either Cee’s post from last Friday or my PPAC post for this coming Friday. I love how colorful the displays are, don’t you? Hope you have happy celebrations this year, too. 🙂

      1. that radish thing sounds really cool – brings to mind us cousins doing the radish flowers for the relish tray during family get togethers…and on a more professional level, Japanese traditional veggie carving!

  4. These are fabulous photos Janis. I have heard a bit about this particular celebration before but you’ve explained it really well, as I didn’t quite get it!

  5. I can see why you have such fond memories of Oaxaca, Janis, especially around this holiday! Umm, yes funny on that selfie–as if! But those other ofrendas are elaborate and amazing to behold. I have no doubt spirits are closer to us on these days as so many folks are thinking and praying for their departed loved ones. Perfect post for the theme and season!

      1. I know, two years, time has truly flown, Janis. Glad you could revisit your trip. I get notifications from Google images that remind me of some trip or place I’ve been to. Always fun to see those special vacations again.

  6. The colors are what stand out most to me in these ofrendas, Janis. But I can imagine the smells as well, especially of the flowers and the sugary treats. I have a sneaking suspicion I might live in Mexico one year during the fall to experience the Day of the Dead and all the celebrations. Ideally, without a dog in tow, as you suggested before…

  7. I honeymooned in Mexico in 1965 and returned two more times in the ’70s. Love the culture but had never really read up on Day of the Dead. Thank you for the explanation and lovely photos!

  8. On your recommendation, I remember visiting the beautiful Panteón General in Oaxaca. It was a Sunday in March 2018 and many families of the departed were sweeping and scrubbing their loved one’s gravestones. I was touched by these simple but devoted remembrances. Día de Muertos in Oaxaca must have been very moving and unforgettable.

    1. I was able to visit several cemeteries during the event, and they were all unique and wonderful (yes, I love cemeteries 🙂 ), but the Panteón General is by far my favorite. Like you, I was so impressed with the care many families took to honor their relatives.

  9. Thanks Janis. One of the skeletons reminds me of ventriloquist Jeff Dunham’s puppet he calls “Achmed, the dead terrorist.” The puppet has a following. Keith

  10. My daughter visited Mexico for the specific day of dead celebrations a few years ago. She came back with beautiful paper to hang in her apt and inspired me to put that trip on my have to see list. Thanks for the post.

  11. I’m so glad you posted this. I’ll be creating an altar for Dia de los Muertos for my folks, who both passed away last year. I made altars for each of them when they died, but now I’ll be creating one for them together. It gives me the opportunity to remember them in a tangible way, and to celebrate the joy and love they shared in life. I’ve been to Day of the Dead celebrations in Santa Fe, and one of these days I’d like to experience the celebration in Oaxaca.

  12. I like the idea behind the celebration of Dia de los Muertos. Instead of fearing the beyond, why not make a colorful show of it, embrace what may be coming next. Your photos are a perfect addition to the challenge topic.

  13. I learned about this event from that Disney animated movie a few years back, which actually did a good job in explaining it. I love the displays you captured… some are so elaborate! Thanks for sharing.

  14. I feel like the Disney movie, Coco, explained this whole holiday. I guess I’d never really known about it before. It seems that a great effort is put into making the decorations beautiful and that all the skeletons aren’t intended to be scary.

  15. Wonderful photos and I love the true meaning of the entire celebration, Janis. The vibrant colors stood out for me, too. Thanks for sharing. I’m sure that was a fabulous experience.

  16. Gorgeous photos of the ofrendas . I agree with Deb. A better way to deal with death. I didn’t know about the earth, air, fire, and water part. If you haven’t seen the Disney animated film Coco, I think you would enjoy it.

  17. These are wonderful images of the alters. I didn’t know about the 4 elements being represented there. It’s pretty cool.
    I love the bright colors, and they way they remember their loved ones who have passed away.

  18. These photos are beautiful, Janis. I love the bright colors and the idea of truly celebrating our loved ones who have died.

  19. I’m very familiar with the tradition in Southern California observances, but it would be really exciting to celebrate the cultural experience in Oaxaca. It is such a beautiful and meaningful expression of respect for loved ones, and ancestral traditions. Lovely photos!

    1. We had often attended Dia de los Muertos celebrations here in SoCal too, but nothing prepared us for what we experienced in Oaxaca. The most impactful experience was visiting the cemeteries at night and seeing the families honoring their loved ones. Truly beautiful.

  20. I thought I was already following you. I think the Day of the Dead is a healthy way to look at mortality. I am gonna have to make a point of trying to get to one.

  21. Beautiful photos, Janis, and thanks for the explanation of the elements included in an ofrenda. Our Halloween tradition is also based on the idea of the spirits of the dead rising from their graves, but in a much more sinister way.


  22. Greetings, Janis. I’ve been away from wordpress for quite awhile now, but it’s wonderful to come back and see familiar faces, read you great words and see the captivating photos. Thanks for sharing – Susan

  23. Lovely photos of intricate ofrendas! We did not have the chance to see Oaxaca in El Dia de los Muertos, but we have heard how festive it is even though the occasion revolves around death. A different way to look at mortality, for sure.

    1. When we went in 2019, it was pretty crowded but we both felt that it was well worth it… just once, anyway. We hope to go back to Oaxaca (it would be our third stay) but we’d probably pick a less touristy time. I hope you can experience it for yourselves sometime!

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