Day of the Dead Turns Grief on Its Head
Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday with indigenous Aztec roots that dates back thousands of years. Widely celebrated in Mexico and among Hispanic Americans, it’s a festive event that honors family members or loved ones who have died.
Day of the Dead recognizes death as part of the continuum of human experience.
“It is also a way of facing the fact that we are all going to die—that there is another realm that should not be ignored, but should be acknowledged and honored and respected,” said Gabriela Maya, Ph.D., a writer and assistant professor at the University of Houston Honors College.
Day of the Dead was once a month-long festival, but when the Aztecs were conquered by Spain in the early 1500s, their traditions merged with Catholic traditions. Day of the Dead now coincides with two minor Catholic holidays: All Saints Day on Nov. 1, and All Souls’ Day on Nov. 2. Those who celebrate believe that the gates of heaven open at midnight on Oct. 31. The spirits of deceased children reunite with their families on Nov. 1 and, on Nov. 2, the spirits of adults return to earth to join the celebration.
Colorfully dressed skeletons are popular Day of the Dead symbols, along with marigolds, sugar or paper skulls and ofrendas—altar offerings that tell visual stories about the deceased to entice them back from the grave.
“In American culture, we tend to think of ghosts as scary—and they are in horror movies. But Day of the Dead makes them into something non-scary, almost like you are bringing the dead into your daily life,” said Maya, who teaches classes for the Medicine & Society minor at UH and organizes interdisciplinary projects, including medical storytelling. “Having a ritual that connects people to the idea and the emotions around the deceased is really important.”
The Medicine & Society minor at UH introduces students to the economic, historic and cultural factors that are vital to the practice of medicine. Maya teaches her students to be introspective about their own lives and they share their personal stories in essays and workshops.
“When I started teaching for Medicine & Society, I started thinking about what I could bring to the class, what I could bring to these students who are going to go into medical school or health professions,” she said. “Having experience sharing their own stories with strangers means that, as a writer, I help them put into words experiences they’ve had with mortality and the vulnerability of the human body.”
Death and loss are always part of the conversation.
“For extra credit, I have had the students create ofrendas in honor of characters in the Great Books course I teach and they really enjoyed it,” Maya said. “These rituals are all about dealing with the realities of human nature, and it is important that we remember what these days are all about.”