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Who Celebrates the Dead?

Indigenous women talk while preparing to decorate their family tombs in honor of All Saints’ Day in Panajachel, Guatemala.


by Hannah Perkins
Photos by Rachel Turner

Every fall children in the United States can’t wait to dress up as their favorite princess, ghost, or goblin to roam the streets in search of the best candy on the block – but October is not just a time for trick-or-treating. For many Latin American countries – including Guatemala – it’s also a time to celebrate their deceased.

A little boy flies a kite during All Saints’ Day while his family decorate and paint the tombs in Panajachel, Guatemala.

The Day of the Dead is an old Mexican holiday tradition adopted around 3,000 years ago that combines Mexican indigenous customs with European traditions. It also coincides with the Catholic holiday, All Souls’ & All Saints’ Day. The Day of the Dead is a day that is acknowledged internationally. The celebration was originally a harvest celebration for the Aztecs, structured around the end of the summer, signaling an end to the farming season. Today, the celebration only lasts for a couple days (starting on November 1), and All Saints’ Day in Guatemala is specifically celebrated on November 1st.

Musicians walk through the cemetery with incense, playing music to wake up the spirits in Panajachel, Guatemala.

Families clean the tombs, paint them, and celebrate the lives of their loved ones who have passed in Panajachel, Guatemala.

Walter Rodriguez paints a tomb during All Saints’ Day in Panajachel, Guatemala.

During ancient times, people from many different ethnic groups all had one thing in common – a belief in the afterlife. People were buried with their favored items throughout life, and the tombs were often constructed beneath family homes so the deceased loved ones would remain close to their families. The Aztecs believed in levels of heavens, and the type of death determined which level one would enter in the afterlife. Warriors who died in battle, women who died during childbirth, and victims of sacrifice achieved the best level.

Families walk through the cemetery in Panajachel, Guatemala.

Today, All Saints’ Day honors the dead and their lives with festivals, parties, food, and drinks. The most familiar symbol of this festival in Guatemala are giant kites that fly overhead while families visit cemeteries to eat together, clean and paint the tombs, decorate with flowers and food, and enjoy time with family. The celebrations are a way to assure the dead are not just mourned by sadness. This type of celebration honors and remembers their lives in a fun and positive way. All Saints’ Day recognizes that death is a natural, human experience, which is not one to be afraid of. It shows the dead are still a part of the community once they have passed.

So next time you’re out trick-or-treating, carving pumpkins, or celebrating at harvest festivals, remember your loved ones who have passed. Reflecting on old memories to celebrate the dead could be a new way to think about death and Halloween celebrations in a more positive way.