Imagine that you are a wandering spirit, and you have been invited back to the temporal world you left behind. What would it take to get you there?
According to belief, the spirits of the dead leave their eternal resting place for one day each year, a special occasion known as Día de los Muertos, or, translated into English, Day of the Dead. During this holiday of Mexican origin, celebrated between October 31 and November 2, the departed are welcomed home with expressions of hospitality. Meaningful objects, familiar aromas, and favorite foods and drinks are thoughtfully arranged as an ofrenda, an offering, on an altar that serves as a highly personal tribute to the deceased.
No two ofrendas are the same, but most include a plate of the traditional pan de muerto, a sweet and symbolic bread that is believed to be enjoyed by everyone—the living and the dead.
Veronica Tomaschek has been commemorating Día de los Muertos since she was a young girl in Mexico City. As Veronica prepares her family’s ofrenda, thoughts turn toward the memory of a sister who died six years ago. As they prepare pan de muerto as a family, Veronica shares stories and memories of her sister, Maria Fernanda Padilla Chardi.
“She was young, and it was unexpected. It brings sad memories but with time, I have learned to be happy for her,” she says. “She is at peace, and not suffering, and the most important thing is that I have an angel taking care of me.”
Several Latin American bakeries and markets sell pan de muerto but Veronica, a trained chef, likes teaching the tradition to her daughters, Isabella and Lucia. The bread has a distinct shape and is crafted by hand—the loaf is round with bone-shaped designs baked into the top, resembling a skull and crossbones.
Making the bread with her daughters is emotional for Veronica. “It brings a lot of memories from home, everything that I miss and moments that I had with my family,” she says. “But it gives me happiness, that I can make it for my daughters and my husband, and I can keep my culture going.”
Rich in symbolism and sustenance, pan de muerto is enjoyed at the family table. Veronica also presents a loaf of the bread on the ofrenda in her home to nourish and delight her special guest.
Ofrendas are highly personal and include mementos and possessions that memorialize the deceased, telling a story of their passions and life on earth. They contain photographs, favorite foods, and other items, such as playing cards, toys, or even shots of tequila. Sights and aromas play an important role. It is believed that veladoras (prayer candles), fresh flowers (particularly the symbolic cempasúchitl, or marigolds), and copal (a Mexican incense), guide the spirits home. These special altars may appear in homes, workplaces, or other public spaces.
Those celebrating Día de los Muertos may also gather at cemeteries and adorn gravesites with flowers, candles, and artistic expressions like the colorful and intricate papel picado (perforated paper) and calaveras (decorated sugar skulls).
“These are the only days of the year that they come to visit, and we offer them things that they liked,” Veronica said.
The traditions of Día de los Muertos have origins with the Aztecs and other indigenous civilizations of Mexico and North Central America, and also reflect some beliefs and practices of Catholicism. Día de los Muertos may look familiar with its elaborate costumes, calaveras, and skeleton figures, and it is tempting to mistake it with Halloween. This celebration, however, differs in meaning and tone. While Halloween typically presents death as macabre and scary, Día de los Muertos views death as a natural, if mysterious, journey and embraces it with revelry and reverence.
“The tradition is a beautiful way to keep them close to us, celebrate their lives and remember all the amazing moments we had with them until the day we can reunite with them,” Veronica said.
If you want to purchase pan de muerto or other Mexican products, you can find a list of locations online at EdibleCleveland.com. Or, make it yourself using Veronica Tomaschek’s recipe. Post your photos and tag us at #ediblecle.