What's Tony Thinking

Dia De Muertos in San Miguel


We arrived in San Miguel de Allende late on the evening of November 1, just in time for the actual Day of the Dead festivities today, on November 2.

Dia De Muertos celebrations run 3, 4 and 5 days, but November 2 is the actual Day. The town square here in San Miguel is filled with people, flowers, musicians and altars to the dead. The altars feature the favorite foods of the dead person, picture of the deceased, memorabilia related to that person, candles and lights.

Huge bunches of marigolds are hauled in from the countryside and used extensively in the making of the altars and general decorations, hence the orange and yellow colors you see below.

Many of pictures of the dead are of young people, which made me wonder if at least some had died during the pandemic. Some altars were devoted to one person, others included several people. Most seemed to be homemade, and many were being constructed as we watched. Here’s a photo of an altar being put together by young women, for what appeared to be a contemporary (all photos by Linda Robinson)

The core idea is remembrance of deceased loved ones. Other features include selected items for returning souls to enjoy (favorite foods, candy, honey, sugar cane) and items to assist them on their journey (coins to pay for passage, keys to access things they may have left behind, a stick to beat off evil spirits).

The fact that the altars to the dead are largely homemade also means that the living have things to do as an expression of their love and affection. Often today modern rituals related to death have stripped out the active participation of the living (e.g. building the coffin, carrying the coffin, spading dirt into the grave). The elements of actually doing physically something for those we love and have lost is healing. A form of paying tribute that is active, physical and communal. Grief needs that.

In modern and American culture the dead tend to be forgotten save for Memorial Day, what was known once as “Decoration Day.” It involved, as Dia De Muertos does, visits to cemeteries to tend the grave. With the now much more common practice of cremation and scattering of the ashes into the ocean, rivers or on a mountainside there often is no actual grave, no place to go. Here’s another photo of an altar to someone who rode motorcycles, complete with his favorite bikes.

Another aspect of the celebration is the living being made up or dressing up as skeletons. These become actual physical representations of the dead returning for a visit. See above for gigantic figures in the San Miguel town square, Le Jardin. In the evening there was a parade of sorts, Halloween on steroids. At some level Dia De Muertos is what all festivals are: a reason to dress up, to go somewhere, to eat and drink and have a good time.

So our time here begins on an exciting and colorful day!

This coming Sunday will be my first in the pulpit of the Community Church of San Miguel de Allende. Whether ironically or coincidentally, the gospel text for this Sunday features a testy encounter between Jesus and religious leaders on the topic of the resurrection. Seems fitting.

I guess one thing that strikes me about The Day of the Dead is that it is about both death and life. We often try to separate the two, but they are really parts of one whole, as in the words of Jesus, only “those who lose their life will find it.” Or St. Francis, “It is in dying that we live.”

For those who want to know more, and from a real authority, here’s a link to a video about the Day of the Dead from Rancho La Puerta. You will find the speaker both charming and knowledgeable.


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