In honor of Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) I reached out to my sorority sister, Rocio, who was kind enough to share how she honors her lost loved ones on this holiday.

For the last few years I have been watching how her faith and cultura helped her with the loss of her grandmother. The tradition of Dia de Los Muertos is over 3,000 years old and is meant to honor the memory of loved ones who have passed on.

For the purpose of this interview I asked Rocio about the significance of her Dia de Los Muertos altar and how this beautiful tradition has helped her with the grieving process:

Some key elements she includes on her altar are the papel picado, signifying air. It is said when the papel picado moves, it is because a soul has come through it.


Dirt represents earth, mine is in a yellow dish that says “Polvo eres y en polvo te convertiras”.


Water is provided because they are thirsty from their journey. Rocio has a blue jar that reads “Agua para calmar la sed”. She also included a mariachi playing the trumpet, since her grandfather played the trumpet.

Sugar for energy, reflected in the many sugar skulls on the altar.

And candles to light their way.

Cempazuchitl is a Marigold flower, also known as the “flor de muerto“. Their bright color and fragrance are said to lead the spirit to their altar, in some occasions people sprinkle them from their front door to the altar.

Salt is essential for the spirit, a symbol of purification, and for them to sprinkle on their food.

dia de los muertos

Rocio includes three tiers on her altar, representative of the sky, earth and underworld. Religious figures are usually put on the top tier. Some people also include copal to clean the energy and food or drinks of their loved ones. She usually includes copal night before.  The Catrina figurine represents the fact that it doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor, we all end up the same. She is dressed elegantly to purposefully mock our ideas of wealth.

 “It was after my grandmother passed that I became intrigued with the notion that she would come back to visit once a year. Day of the Dead gave me resolution. Just when I was lost at the fact that I would never see, hear, or speak to her again, I started paying more attention to this tradition so ingrained in our culture that told me she was not gone. Her spirit lived forever but in a different world and once a year she would come back to us. It made death less absolute, and for that matter, less terrifying.”

“Of course it can be sad, but there is also a saying that no tears are allowed on Dia de Los Muertos because tears make the spirits’ journey slippery and difficult. Instead, we must lift our spirits and rejoice their arrival, spend the day with our family, alive and passed.”

Rocio’s rituals for the night before Dia de Los Muertos are:

“I make sure the flowers are new and the altar is lit the entire night before ( I don’t want my loved ones to get lost). I also add food including pan de muerto to make sure they have something to eat when they arrive, making sure to add some of their favorite foods and beverages.”

November 1st is considered El día de los Angelitos, reserved for the spirits of children.

November 2nd is when all spirits arrive.


“On the 2nd, since my grandmother is buried here, I am fortunate enough to visit her and decorate her space at the cemetery. I make sure to add tons of cempazuchitl and candles.  Later on in the day, our family meets there to pray a rosary for her safe journey and eternal peace. We bring food (usually tamales) and drinks (atole/champurrado for the evening chill) and spend the evening with her. In previous years I have painted my face and brought the face paint to paint others in my family as well, if they’d like. Especially the kids. We just spend the evening there, “conviviendo”, talking, laughing, remembering.”

“It’s not just sugar skulls and papel picado. It’s so much more. And to those that see it as related to something terrifying, I mean sure, it’s skeletons and death, but Dia de Los Muertos portrays death as nothing but just one more step in our spirits’ journey. We’re all headed there, anyway. This just means that we all get to come back every single year.”

“I’m just obsessed with this day because it provides me with comfort in knowing that our loved ones are not completely gone. And that, I believe, is directly related to how I have coped with death.”

Thank you Rocio for inviting us into your home and for sharing how you honor your beloved family members on Dia de Los Muertos.

Does your family use cultural traditions to help process grief?