SUBTOPIC: Day of the Dead, or "Dia de los Muertos"

GRADE LEVEL: 4th - 5th grade

AUTHOR: Andrea Pretti


Day of the Dead also called "Dia de los Muertos," is a holiday (or festival) which is celebrated in Mexico, Ecuador, Guatemala, and other areas in Central and South America populated with the Latino ethnic background. The Day of the Dead is also celebrated in areas of the United States, such as California, Texas, and many others, in which the Mexican/American heritage exists.

November 2nd is the official date for Day of the Dead, although it is celebrated between October 31st and November 2nd. These dates correspond with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. This correspondence results from the Catholic Church's efforts to "find similarities between the indigenous and Christian beliefs." This celebration has a complex history that has been transformed through the years. Today the celebration takes place at about the same time ancient corn festivals were celebrated, when food from a plentiful harvest was shared with the deceased. Now certain customs vary within different regions. The best way to describe this holiday is to say it is a time when family members who have died are remembered. In Mexico, this festival is considered to be the most important holiday of the year.

Although this celebration is associated with the dead, it is not portrayed as a morbid or depressing time, but rather a period full of life, happiness, color, food, family, and fun. There is excitement everywhere. In many areas, outdoor markets are displayed in which they sell many symbolic goods, such as special breads, flowers, pottery, baskets, candles, paper puppets, candy skulls, etc. The main symbols of this holiday are skulls and skeletons, which are displayed throughout the cities. Scenes of skeletons hugging, marching, dancing, and laughing are seen in window displays on the streets. Marigolds are another significant symbol for the Day of the Dead festivity, and are known as the "flower of the dead." Their scent is believed to "attract the souls and draw them back."

People celebrate this holiday in their households, as well as in the cemeteries. In their homes, between Oct. 31st and Nov. 2nd (a time called "Todos Santos"), offerings of food and drink are prepared for the dead. "Ofrendas" (offerings) are often set up in the home on an altar displaying portraits, personal goods, clothing, favorite foods, and possessions of the deceased family member. Sometimes they are shown at the gravesites as well. On Nov. 2nd, family members visit the gravesites of their loved ones. They decorate their graves with flowers, enjoy picnics consisting of favorite foods of the deceased, and socially interact with others at the cemetery. This is an important social ritual that the Latino people see as "a way of recognizing the cycle of life and death that is human existence." In certain areas, an all-night candlelight vigil takes place by the graves of the family members. The whole occasion is festive, and everyone talks of the dead as if they were still alive. During this time, people "remember, re-live, and enjoy."

The common foods eaten on this holiday include pan de los muertos ("bread of the dead"), which is flat bread baked in the shape of skulls and crossbones. It is said to be good luck to be the one who bites into the plastic toy skeleton hidden by the baker in each loaf. Candy in the shape of skulls, skeletons, and coffins, and many favorite Mexican dishes (tamales, moles, chiles, enchiladas) are consumed as well.

This holiday is believed to "welcome the souls of the dead." The souls are said to return each year to enjoy the pleasures that they once had in life. They are thought to return to be with their living relatives for a few brief hours each year in this world, but come as spirits who have returned from another world. A widely held belief is that the souls of the children ("angelitos") return first, and food and gifts appropriate for their age and taste will be set out for them. Everything is in miniature: cups, plates, small breads, etc. The adult dead are said to return on Nov. 1st and they are given the most elaborate foods and drinks the family can afford. It is believed that the candle light, as well as the scents of the marigold flowers and the copal incense, help the returning souls find their way back. Sometimes paths of marigold petals are scattered by the family from the cemetery to the door of the house. The ghosts can find their way by following this yellow path. The ghosts (or spirits) are not usually seen, but their presence is felt.

There are folktales believed and told that say the dead spirits will get revenge on the living if they get poor treatment during these days each year. Leaving nothing (or inferior gifts) on the altar causes the spirits to be angry or sad. These superstitions inspire many people to participate in this holiday celebration for this very reason.

The Day of the Dead can range from an important cultural event, to a religious ceremony emphasizing the actual worship of the dead, to just a unique Mexican holiday symbolized by special foods and candy. In Mexico, the more urban the setting, the less the religious and cultural importance is recognized by the people. The more rural and "Indian" the setting, the greater is the religious importance of the holiday. Therefore, this celebration is usually of greater social importance in southern Mexico than in the northern part of the country.

Today, the Day of the Dead is a cherished, complex holiday celebration where death is seen as life. The common principle for this holiday is "whatever pleased the dead in life they are to have again." It is a holiday when the whole family comes together - both living and dead. This holiday festivity is believed to be a time for the departed to join the living in the celebrations of the "continuum of life."



Carmichael, Elizabeth and Sayer, Choloe. (1992). The Skeleton At The Feast - The Day of the Dead in Mexico. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press.

Dobler, Lavinia. (1962). Customs and Holidays around the World. New York: Fleet Publishing Corp.

Kalish, Richard A. (1980). Death and Dying: Views from Many Cultures. New York: Baywood Publishing Company, Inc.

Linton, Ralph. (1950). Halloween Through Twenty Centuries. New York: Henry Schuman.

Pofahl, Jane. (1996). The Time Traveler Series - Mexico. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Instructional Fair.


Meyerson, Allen R. "Caressing Life on the Day of the Dead," The New York Times, November 4, 1995, p. 9.

Weibel, Michael R. "El Dia De Los Muertos," The Herald Journal, November 10, 1996, p. 21.


(1995) CL Net Folklore/Customs/Traditions Web Page. [On-line]. Available: http://latino.sscnet.ucla.edu/research/folklore.html

Robinson, Barbara Curator, Boeckmann Center. El Dia de los Muertos. [On-line]. Available: http://www-lib.usc.edu/Info/Boeck/Dead/index.html

Memminger, Keith. "Ghostly Remedy." [On-line]. Available:

The Day of the Dead. [On-line]. Available: http://ted.ele.madison.tec.wi.us/ dead.html

Glossary of words for Day of the Dead. [On-line]. Available: http://www-lib.usc. edu/Boeck/Dead/day_dead_glossary.html

(1995) EgoWeb. Felip's Day of Dead Page. [On-line]. Available: http://edb 518ea.edb.utexas.edu/cyberraza/muertos.html

What do Mexicans celebrate on the "Day of the Dead?" [On-line]. Available: http://www.Public.iastate.edu/~rjsalvad/scmfaq/ muertos.html

Dia de los Muertos. [On-line]. Available: http://star.ucc.nau.edu/FLI/ DDLM/Dia.html


TIME ALLOTMENT: Approximately 3 or 4 days, completing 2 or 3 activities per day (preferably the week of Halloween).



A. Inquire, Discuss, and Display Altar. Ask students questions such as "Have you ever had a picnic in a cemetery? Have you ever baked a cake for someone who is no longer living? Have you ever remembered the dead with joy instead of sadness?" Discuss the students answers, and explain how these are some events that take place during the Day of the Dead celebration. Present and familiarize the students with the classroom altar, explain its components (make sure it is an ethnic altar, not a religious altar), and how it relates to the holiday celebration.

B. Mini-lecture. Explain when and where the Day of the Dead is celebrated. Show the students on a world map where the areas and countries in which it is honored are located. Be sure to explain to the students that there are areas in the U.S. that celebrate this holiday as well. Share information about this holiday. Check for understanding with questions and review ideas as needed. Ask students to draw a picture resembling something they remember about this holiday.

C. Art Project. Review information about the holiday symbols. Show pictures displaying some of these symbols, and focus on the decorative skulls. Explain to students that they are going to be designing a skull sculpture of their own out of the salt dough provided. Tell them that once their sculpture is molded, they need to be baked in the oven over night, and then they can paint and decorate them the following day. Show them examples of different skulls.

D. Designing and Decorating Skulls. After the skulls have been baked in the oven, display pictures of some elaborate skulls that are seen during the Day of the Dead celebration. Focus on the different colors, shapes, and designs that the skulls have, in order to help the students get ideas for decorating their own skull sculpture. Provide paints and allow them to decorate their sculpture.

E. Spanish Integration. Describe how the Spanish language ties into this celebration. Introduce some Spanish words relating to the Day of the Dead celebration to expand the students' Spanish vocabulary, write them on the board, and have the students practice the pronunciation of each word. Use words such as:

For additional words refer to the "GLOSSARY OF WORDS FOR THE DAY OF THE DEAD" in the appendix. Have students write down the words and the English translations on their paper. Ask students to pair up and practice the pronunciations with each other. Have them quiz one another on the English meanings of each word. To check the students understanding of the new Spanish words, and to practice their math skills, have them complete the activity sheets included in the appendix (LA OFENDA PAGE 1 AND 2). Go over any Spanish words on the activity sheets that the students are not familiar with. Encourage the students to practice the new Spanish vocabulary words at home.

F. Poem Writing. Review the new Spanish vocabulary words. Define the different definitions of "calaveras." Introduce the traditional "CALVERAS" POEM used for the Day of the Dead celebration, and explain what definition is applied to the poem (see appendix for poem). Display the poem on the board or overhead for the students to see. Go over the poem in Spanish and English. Recognize the new Spanish vocabulary words that are included in the poem. Have the class choral read the poem in both Spanish and English. Discuss how there is a rhyming pattern used when read in Spanish, but not in English. Once the students are familiar with this poem, have them write their own poem about the Day of the Dead. An option to consider about the writing topic being the Day of the Dead could be to expand the topic, and allow the students to write their poem about Halloween (considering the idea that the Day of the Dead is a religious holiday in which some students may not feel comfortable writing about). Allow time for the students who want to share their poems with the class to do so. If possible, the teacher can translate a few of the students' poems to Spanish so the students can hear how the rhyming pattern they used in English is not present in Spanish.

G. Field Trip. Make arrangements* to allow the students to go on a field trip to a nearby cemetery. At the cemetery, have the students sit in a circle on a blanket or tarp, and review what they have learned about the Day of the Dead celebration and what takes place in cemeteries during this holiday. Talk about pan de muertos ("bread of the dead"), and review the idea about how the person with the plastic skeleton in their piece of bread is said to have good luck. Tell the students that instead of the bread, we are using cupcakes. Explain that everyone gets a cupcake to eat. The girls will pick from one box, the boys from another. One girl and one boy will have a candy skeleton in their cupcake, which means they will receive good luck and are crowned the king and queen for the day. Eat the cupcakes and present the crowns to the king and queen. Take a walk around the grounds of the cemetery, explore the different styles of headstones from the past to the more recent years, figure out how old people were when they passed away, observe the family burial plots, and note the year of the oldest and most recent deaths. Remember to remind students that they must respect the grounds and the families of the "spirits" who reside there. Back in the classroom discuss the students' observations from the cemetery, and share the recipe for "PAN DE MUERTOS" (recipe is in the appendix), so that students may make it at home.

*The procedures for making arrangements are not outlined because they may vary depending on the location of the school (in which this activity is being conducted) in relation to the cemetery, the school policies, parent volunteers, etc.

H. Reflecting, Sharing, and Closure. After all the previous activities have been completed, have the students do a writing activity focusing on the following question: "What did you learn about spirits or ghosts in relation to the Day of the Dead celebration?" Allow the students who want to share their writing with the class to do so. Discuss the students responses. Share the "GHOSTLY REMEDY" (see appendix) with the students.



SALT DOUGH RECIPE (taken from Kids Create - Arts and Crafts by Lori Carlson)


"GLOSSARY OF WORDS FOR DAY OF THE DEAD" (taken from Internet site at http://www-lib.usc.edu/Info/Boeck/Dead/day_dead_glossary.html)

"LA OFRENDA, PAGE 1 AND 2" ACTIVITY SHEETS: are available on the Internet at: http://star.ucc.nau.edu/FLI/DDLM/ofrenda.html, and http://star.ucc.nau. edu/FLI/DDM/ofrenda2.html, or see p.10, 11, 12 in the hard copy of my unit.

"CALAVERAS" POEM (Traditional) (from Internet site at http://star.ucc.nau.edu /FLI/DDLM/Poem3.html)

Ahi viene el agua

Hear comes the water

por la ladera,

down the slope

y se me moja

and my skull

mi calavera.

is getting wet.

La muerte calaca,

Death, a skeleton

ni gorda ni flaca.

neither fat nor skinny.

La muerte casera,

A homemade skeleton

pegada con cera.

stuck together with wax.

"PAN DE MUERTOS" RECIPE: available on the Internet at http://star.ucc.nau. edu/FLI/DDLM.receta1.html, or see p. 13 and 14 in the hard copy of my unit.

"GHOSTLY REMEDY" by Keith Memminger (from Internet site at http://192.246.443.10/www/hispano/fiesta.html)