The Day of the Dead: A Celebration of Life

Entrance to the cemetery at Comares, Spain

Customs and celebrations to honour the end of the harvest, the change of the seasons and the passage of life into death come together in many notable traditions at this time of the year.

The festival of Todos los Santos (All Saints´ day)  is celebrated throughout Spain as a national holiday on November 1st each year.

Tending the graves in Competa cemetery for Todos Los Santos

Although the American-style “ghosts and ghouls” type of Halloween is now creeping into the Spanish calendar each year (sadly), traditionally this time is celebrated here in a different form, as “El Día de los Muertos” or the “Day of the Dead” .

The three-day event, beginning on the evening of October 31 and ending on November 2 (All Souls´ day) sees cemeteries packed with families paying homage to their dead.   Family members tend the gravestones of their loved ones by painting, weeding and cleaning them, and by placing fresh flowers and candles.

Cleaning the gravestones in Competa cemetery, Spain

Climbing up the steps to tend the grave in Competa, Spain

We often visit our local cemetery on November 1st, and apart from the sheer number of people, the first thing that always strikes me is the overwhelming fragrance of fresh flowers.

Family members of all ages arrive carrying vases, buckets, bottles of water, cleaning items, candles and arms full of flowers.   The atmosphere is not at all solemn and the sound of chatter is everywhere, with people greeting each other with kisses and hugs.  Each member of the family plays their part in the cleaning and tending of the grave and, when they were finally satisfied, they wandered around the cemetery, looking at other graves to remember the dead,  before leaving.

Fresh flowers on all the newly-tended graves in Competa, Spain

Cómpeta cemetery, Spain

What I particularly like about this lovely Spanish tradition is that all of the frightening aspects of the afterlife are taken out of it.  This is a commemoration for loved ones with nothing ghoulish or scary involved.   Exactly as it should be, in my opinion.

How do you honour loved ones who have passed away, in your part of the world?  

Here are some other posts that I hope you might enjoy:

The heart of Cómpeta: El Paseo de las Tradiciones

The Buddhist Stupa of the Eastern Costa del Sol

60 thoughts on “The Day of the Dead: A Celebration of Life

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  4. A very beautiful way to remember the loved ones that have passed away – your photos are really great… 🙂

    Many (maybe too many) of our celebrations are getting (too much) commercial and less soul and spirit… 🙂

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  9. From the time I can remember my family celebrated this special day. They went to cemetaries and honored those who had passed on. I never found it odd because I was taught from a very young age to show respect to those who were no longer with us. I can no longer do this because my family is buried in Puerto Rico. but, when I visited a few years ago it was the first place that I went. Unfortunately, they do not allow flowers. They do not have the staff to remove them when they have dried up. It was nice to see this tradition is still being done. I can imagine the wonderful fragrance that the fresh flowers have. Great photo’s …..

    • I´m glad you were able to return to where your family members are buried in Puerto Rico, Izzy. It must have meant the world to you. This is such a wonderful tradition and most respectful.

      Thank you for all your comments and your continued support of my blog. I appreciate it very much 🙂

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  11. This is a beautiful and inspiring celebration. I too grew up witnessing this festivity where we honor our dead, pray for their souls, remember and celebrate the legacy they left behind. My grandma used to ask us pray novenas during this event. Most of which I can’t even understand cause they were in Spanish. But I did appreciate how she valued her faith and tried to share it to us and my siblings.

    • When I went along to the local cemetery yesterday, it was packed with whole families – children to grandparents, all taking care of the graves of their loved ones. I´m sure that was a similar situation to the one you describe with your grandmother – passing on the tradition.

      What a lovely story – thank you for sharing it 🙂

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  13. Too many of us tend to forget or avoid thinking about our dead loved ones. I love the culture of celebration and colour, and treating them not as gone but just nearby, in another room 🙂

    • Thanks John. I always try to visit my local village cemetery on November 1st, even though I personally don´t know anyone buried there, because I can always remember and celebrate the lives of my own lost loved ones, wherever I am. Somehow, I feel connected and that I belong – even though in the true sense of the word, I don´t.

  14. Halloween is approaching here in North America. It is my least favourite holiday. How I wish instead for a joyful and wholesome celebration like the Day of the Dead!

  15. I always forget this aspect of the celebration when I’m in Portugal for All Saints. (I often am, but not this year- I get an extra hour of the Algarve if I time it right with the clocks going back) I imagine it’s much the same? The cemeteries are equally lovely and I always like to have a look. (Poland too!)

  16. In Mexico they have Dia de los Muertos which is pretty similar I believe. It involves going to the cemeteries and honoring your ancestors/people in your family who have passed away.

    I grew up with Halloween and while it is very commercialized, it is also a lot of fun. My family didn’t really decorate the house this year but it’s always great to see what your neighbors come up with. And I’ve never met anybody who didn’t like carving a pumpkin and making a jack o lantern. I don’t dress up anymore but adults will have costume parties. It’s the one night of the year you can get away with wearing skimpy outfits!

    • According to Wikipedia: “Halloween or Hallowe’en (a contraction of “All Hallows’ Evening”), also known as All Hallows’ Eve, is a yearly celebration observed in a number of countries on October 31, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows (or All Saints). According to many scholars, it was originally influenced by western European harvest festivals and festivals of the dead with possible pagan roots”.

      But, like you say, Amelie, Halloween is now very commercialized (like Christmas), so that the true meaning behind it is gradually being lost. I didn´t realize that adults have costume parties – I thought it was for kids! Shows what I know!

  17. This is one of the many aspects of European cultures that I lament are forgotten for the most part in North America. What a lovely, respectful way to honour loved ones we have lost. Your photos tell the story in a most meaningful way.

    • A very respectful way, yes Patricia. I think the thing that impressed me most was that the “fear factor” is completely taken out of the equation, making it the exact opposite of Halloween.

  18. Flowers and prayers. That’s how my family remembers are loved ones who have passed away. A Catholic church in Berkeley has a lovely tradition during the prayer intentions. The lector calls on the congregation to speak out the names of their loved ones. Many churches would simply read out a list of names. Still, in Berkeley, people in the pews whisper the names and there’s this hush that falls over the community. It’s haunting and touching.

    Also, I love your last shot, thru the gate/door. It’s a wonderful composition and it makes the lady standing by the flowers look so delicate.

  19. I remember my first All Souls – in Austria, they lit candles – it was simply gorgeous and I’ve never been able to understand why we don’t do something similar – it’s as though we’ve put our dead in this scary place and stay away from them forever more!

    • The dead are a very scary concept to many people and, as we all know, death is very much a part of life – so, how much nicer that we accept it and honour our dearly departed, than be in fear all our lives.

      The local celebrations of life in Spain were a real eye-opener to me. It´s almost like the atmosphere at a fiesta – such a calming influence.

  20. Hi, I found you via your visit to our blog earlier today. Your site is very nice, I have loads to learn. I really enjoy day of the dead celebrations from my visits to Mexico. I am also fascinated with cemeteries, so much history. Thanks!

  21. In Hawaii we have the lantern-floating ceremony. For a small fee of a few dollars, you can inscribe a paper lantern with the name of a departed loved one and a message. Then after sunset, a ceremony and Taiko drumming (and perhaps a bon dance), everyone wades into the sea and the lanterns are lit and set adrift on the tide, to be collected later. It’s a beautiful sight and a very moving and loving time. Thousands attend, and it’s broadcast on tv. A wonderful way to remember loved ones. There’s a photo in my post on Repetition if anyone’s interested:

    • My thoughts exactly! BTW, thanks for voting for East of Málaga in the Blog Awards, Gilly. As a matter of fact, I have just typed in your name as one of my “Featured Blogs” for November´s CBBH Photo Challenge 🙂

I´d love to hear from you, and much appreciate your comments. Thank you.

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