This tradition was celebrated by the indigenous people before the arrival of the Spanish. According to them, they believed that death was a step to reach the underworld and that it was a trip to the Mictlán or world of the dead where you went to a process and provided offerings the Lord of the Dead or Mictlantecuhtli.
Death is Not the End of Life
For the native people, death was only the beginning of a journey to other worlds. According to their stories, they did not believe in heaven or hell as a reward or punishment for their actions. If not that those who drowned were going to the world Tlalocan or paradise of water, those who died in sacrifice or wars went to Omeyocan or the paradise of Huitzilopochtli or god of war and battle, those who died naturally went to Mictlán.
Honoring the Deceased
The altars carry offerings to remember those that are no longer there and it is believed in the tradition that the dead return from the underworld to visit their loved ones in the world of the living. On the altars there is bread, candles, the belongings of the deceased, objects that the deceased in life valued, like statues of the holy death or saints, also things such as a cigar or a glass of water.
Each of these offerings have a special meaning like the cempasúchil flower that serves as a guide to the spirits of the underworld, or the copal that serves to purify the environment of negative energies. In addition, there may be alcohol and the traditional bread of the day of the dead. It is in this way we honor the deceased by remembering their lives and the memory left by those who will not return.
The Day of Dead is celebrated more in southern Mexico than in the north. People go to cemeteries and raise their altars at midnight, worshiping death and remembering loved ones, remembering that life is only one step and death is eternity and that in the end that is the destiny of humanity.
For a fun look at the traditional celebrations behind the Day of the Dead, may I recommend the 2017 Disney/Pixar animated film Coco. It’s a great way to teach children young and old about this important Mexican holiday that they are sure to find both educational and entertaining.