To celebrate dia de los muertos, Mexicans place traditional alters in their homes or on gravesites to honor their deceased. These altars typically feature symbolic objects or ofrendas (offerings) such as sugar skulls, marigolds, favorite foods and drinks of the departed, pictures of or possessions of the deceased, and candles. The purpose of these altars is to encourage visits from the departed souls.
Orange Mexican marigolds called cempasúchil are an important symbol of this holiday, as they are believed to attract the souls of the deceased. Flowers are placed on graves and altars, and in some ceremonies the petals are removed and spread over the area to celebrate dia del los muertos. In modern Mexico, the marigold is often called Flor de Muerto (Flower of the Dead).
Another common symbol of the holiday is the skull (calavera), which celebrants represent in masks, called calacas (skeleton). Skulls are also represented in foods such as sugar or chocolate skulls, which are inscribed with the name of the recipient on the forehead and given as gifts to either the deceased or the living. Additional foods include pan de muerto (dead man’s bread, sweet bread made from flour and eggs and shaped into skulls, animals, or bones.
Mexican families typically spend time together around their family altar praying and sharing memories and stories about the deceased. In some locations, celebrants wear shells on their clothing, so when they dance in celebrations, the noise will wake the dead and encourage them to visit the altar. Pillows and blankets are often left near the altar so the deceased can rest after their long journey to visit their living friends and family. In some parts of Mexico, such as the towns of Mixquic, Pátzcuaro and Janitzio, people spend the entire night in the cemetery near the graves of their departed relatives. In many locations, people have meals at the gravesites.
Some families create short poems called calaveras (skulls) that describe the personalities, habits, or interesting stories related to the deceased in order to celebrate dia del muertos. This custom originated in the 18th or 19th century, after a newspaper published a poem narrating a dream of a cemetery in the future in which “all of us are dead”, and “reading” tombstones.
Newspapers often publish calaveras of public figures, with cartoons of skeletons in the style of the famous calaveras of José Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican artist. Posada created a famous illustration of a figure he called La Calavera de la Catrina (“skull of the rich woman”) as a parody of a Mexican upper-class female, to celebrate dia de los muertos. Posada’s image of a costumed female with a skeleton face has become an iconic symbol associated with of the Day of the Dead, and Catrina figures often are a prominent part of modern Day of the Dead observances.