A typical Day of the Dead ‘altar’ or ‘offering’ commemorating departed loved ones — in Mexico’s uniquely playful and colourful fashion.

A typical Day of the Dead ‘altar’ or ‘offering’ commemorating departed loved ones — in Mexico’s uniquely playful and colourful fashion.




‘Day of the Dead’ may sound like a gruesome, spooky event, but it is actually an exceptionally beautiful and sacred celebration.

With roots in pre-Columbian rituals and traditions of ancestor worship, today’s Día de Muertos is an honouring of departed loved ones, an opportunity to remember them, ‘share a meal’ and an evening with them, commemorate them among family and friends. Tepoztlán is a famously festive town where Indigenous traditions are strong and highly visible, so virtually every family creates a colourful ‘altar’ or ‘offering’ in their home: tables set with candles, fruit, flowers, sweet breads, ceramic dishes full of food, pictures of loved ones who have passed on, and a few favourite items of the departed (beer, jewellery, a scarf, tequila, chocolate, etc.). On the nights of November 1 and 2, a brilliant orange path of marigold petals and candlelight is created between each altar and the street, where some of the families light a small bonfire as a beacon to the spirits. In Mexico, the veil between life and death is not just thin but downright diaphanous, so the idea is that such a display will entice and guide the dead back to celebrate with those on earth.


In contrast to Halloween, where ghosts and skeletons are seen as frightening, the images used for Día de Muertos are considered playful and charming. The skeletons are often dressed up in their best clothes, smoking, drinking, dancing and whooping it up. Rather than being feared and sanitized, cloaked in blackness, death in Mexico has a place in everyday life, and the dead are welcomed among the living. During Día de Muertos, the cemeteries fill with families having joyful picnics beside the graves of loved ones, often serenading them with guitars.

This fall’s memoir writing retreat will begin during the week leading up to Día de Muertos, when Tepoztlán’s market fills with flowers, colourful tissue paper banners, chocolate and sugar sculptures, ceramic dishes, dancing skeletons, and every imaginable accessory for the creation of family altars. Restaurants and other local establishments will have their altars/offerings on display all week, and on November 1 and 2, the townspeople will light their candles and open the doors of their homes. Similar to Halloween, though without the costumes, children and their parents will wander the streets carrying candlelit gourds, asking for candy, visiting neighbours, paying respects and admiring the altars/offerings in their neighbourhoods.


At Casa Temictli, the setting of our writing retreat, we will also create a Day of the Dead altar and everyone is welcome (though certainly not required!) to bring something to contribute: a photo and/or symbol (a favourite item or piece of jewellery) of a departed loved one.


This is a particularly good retreat to attend with a friend or spouse who might not want to take part in the writing workshops, but who may be interested in experiencing the colours and traditions of Mexico. My family and I lived in Tepoztlán for the better part of a decade and witnessed dozens (hundreds?) of celebrations and festivals, but Día de Muertos was and remains — hands down—our favourite. There is simply nothing like it.