Photographs from Mexico’s Day of the Dead, Where Candles and Heaps of Marigolds Draw out the Spirits

Day of the Dead in Mexico (all photographs by the author)

Last year, I made a pilgrimage to Mexico to experience how Day of the Dead is celebrated at its country of origin. The three places that were most tied strongly to this religious and spiritual holiday are the towns of Toluca, Patzcuaro, and Janitzio, more famously known as the Isle of the Dead.

Toluca is about two hours away from Mexico City, and is well-known for its sugar skull market. Sugar skulls can be offered to both the living and the dead as gifts. When they are placed on a Day of the Dead altar, they are often put beside the the favorite food or drink of the deceased. In Toluca, you can find hundreds of varieties of sugar skulls, along with miniature representations of food which also are used for Day of the Dead offerings.

About a six hour drive away from Mexico City in the state of Michoacan is Patzcuaro and Janitzio. Patzcuaro is a port town right besides a large inland lake that encompasses Janitzio and two other smaller islands. In Patzcuaro, you can observe how the locals celebrate Day of Dead. Just as the US has adopted the Day of the Dead, Mexicans in turn have adopted Halloween. So what happens is from Halloween all the way to November 2nd, children dress in simple costumes and ask for candy or coins. Many use hollowed out gourds and melons as their baskets to hold their treats.

To reach Janitzio, you have to take an hour boat ride from Patzcuaro. The oldest practice besides Day of the Dead altars is performed at the shore where fishermen in small boats do a type of fish net dance with candles. There used to be more of them who performed this ritual, but now there are only a dozen or less who carry on this practice. In Mexico, Day of Dead is more of a spiritual and religious festival, but in the US, it’s become more like an extension of Halloween. There is more of an emphasis on elaborate costumes in the US, but in Mexico, the focus is on the altars and the millions, if not billions, of marigolds used to decorate them. The scent of the flowers is said to lure back the dead to visit Earth for this annual reunion with the living.

All photographs by Robert Hemedes.