Baylor Expert: Día De Los Muertos – A Celebration of Life and Death
Death studies scholar Candi Cann, Ph.D., shares the elements of this unique Mexican holiday for families to honor and remember their loved ones
Contact: Kelly Craine, Baylor University Media and Public Relations
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WACO, Texas (Oct. 25, 2022) – Día De Los Muertos – or Day of the Dead – has grown in popularity in the United States over the past decade, with the 2017 Disney/Pixar film, Coco, bringing greater attention to the holiday and its colorful sugar skulls and skeleton decorations. Although these decorations can be found in stores next to Halloween items, this unique Mexican holiday – celebrated Nov. 1 through Nov. 2 – isn’t another version of Halloween but a way for families to honor and remember their loved ones who have died, said Baylor University death studies scholar and author Candi Cann, Ph.D. It’s importance to world culture as recognized in 2008 when UNESCO inscribed the holiday in the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Cann, who is an associate professor of religion in the Honors College at Baylor, said it’s not surprising that the holiday is becoming popular outside of Mexico. There are no other traditions in the United States about death that are not mournful. The opportunity to celebrate loved ones in a way beyond the funeral process resonates with people, Cann said.
“It’s a beautiful tradition that helps people with the grief process,” she said.
Día De Los Muertos is time for past and present generations to come together. Unlike Halloween, interacting with the dead isn’t scary, but more like a family reunion, Cann said.
“On that day, the dead return to visit the living,” she said. “It is a time to have fun and celebrate our connection to our ancestors.”
Traditional Día De Los Muertos Celebrations can include:
- Calaveras – The most recognized symbol of the holiday, sugar skulls are offered as gifts to both the living and the dead. A representation of the La Calavera Catrina, the skulls are decorated with colorful icing, sequins or feathers.
- The Ofrenda – Families will set up altars in their house or at the grave site to honor their family members. The Ofrenda is colorfully decorated with pictures of the deceased along with paper banners, candles, marigolds, small gifts, favorite foods and calaveras.
- Costumes – Colorful costumes with vibrant skull makeup reminiscent of the Calaveras are another way to celebrate Día De Los Muertos. Children and adults alike can dress up in Calaveras makeup. The purpose is not to look macabre but to be a festive way to celebrate all members of the family living and dead.
- Food and Drink – This not only is an offering to the deceased but a way for the living to come together and share a meal with their loved ones. Traditional dishes included tamales, Pan de Muerto (or “Bread of the Dead”) and Pan dulce.
Cann suggests if you are interested in celebrating Día De Los Muertos, start by finding a community festival or parade, such as Saturday’s Día De Los Muertos Parade & Festival at Indian Spring Park in downtown Waco.
“This is a great way to learn more about the holiday and how you can celebrate with your family,” Cann said. “Most importantly, keep the focus on family. The heart of the holiday is on remembering and honoring our loved ones.”
ABOUT CANDI CANN, PH.D.
Candi K. Cann, Ph.D., associate professor of religion, teaches in both the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core (BIC) in the Honors College and the Department of Religion. At Baylor, she teaches courses in World Cultures, Social World, World Religions, Buddhism and Death and Dying.
Her research focuses on death and dying, and the impact of remembering (and forgetting) in shaping how lives are recalled, remembered and celebrated. She examined this theme through martyrdom in her early scholarship. Cann’s books include “Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the 21st Century,” which centered on digital grief and memorialization in the contemporary world; “Dying to Eat: Cross Cultural Perspectives on Food, Death and the Afterlife” about the intersection of food in death and grief; and “The Routledge Handbook of Death and Afterlife,” an edited collection of 30 chapters examining death and afterlife from around the world. Her scholarly work also includes numerous articles and book chapters, including “African American Deathways” in Oxford Bibliographies in African American Studies.
Cann also co-wrote the article, “Death, Grief, and Funerals in the COVID age,” which centered on optimal strategies for helping people develop new rituals to honor those who die during the COVID-19 era. The article’s resources and best practices for support during an unprecedented time were recognized and used by OptionB.org, National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, Presidential Taskforce on Grief and Loss, and the New York State Psychological Association, among many others.
Cann recently received a Fulbright U.S. Scholar Award, a prestigious and competitive fellowship of the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, to teach and conduct research in South Korea in 2023 as the first Fulbright Scholar at Han Nam University, one of a few Christian universities in South Korea and where she was among its first American exchange students in 1990-91. She also will conduct research on the rise of the country’s hospital funeral homes, examining the ways in which they promote religious pluralism, a topic that aligns with her current research on diversity in death and the intersection of death and technology around the world.
Cann received both her A.M. and Ph.D. in Comparative Religion from Harvard University, an M.A. in Asian Religions from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, and a B.A. in Asian Studies and English from St. Andrews in North Carolina.
ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY
Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked Research 1 institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 20,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 90 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.
ABOUT THE HONORS COLLEGE AT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY
The Honors College at Baylor University unites four innovative interdisciplinary programs – the Honors Program, University Scholars, Baylor Interdisciplinary Core and Great Texts – with a shared commitment to providing undergraduate students the opportunity to pursue questions that often fall between the cracks of the specialized disciplines by investigating the writings of scientists along with the writings of poets, historians and philosophers. For more information, visit baylor.edu/honorscollege.
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