Celebrating Dia de los Muertos: The Day of the Dead

As expats living in Madrid, my family and I have become accustomed to new traditions. Many of these we celebrate as a family so that our children can learn about different cultures and traditions other than our own. 

As many Americans were preparing for Halloween on October 31, we were preparing for All Saints Day on November 1 and then ending with Dia de los Muertos on November 2. Although Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is mostly celebrated in Mexico, it is also recognized in España by many families, as there is a large Mexican community here.

This holiday allows friends and families to join together to reflect on the lives of their deceased loved ones to help support their journey in the afterlife.

It is not considered a sad event but more of a celebration, as this day allows their loved ones to reawaken and journey back to their families. 

Although the word “day” is in the title, Dia de los Muertos is actually two days with preparation being one week and sometimes even one year leading up to the event. Families get busy planning their lists of “to dos” and prepping for altars with photographs, vibrant flowers, banners, sugar skulls, and offerings of food and wine. 

This year we decided to create our own altar as a family to remember many of our loved ones who have passed. I recently lost a very close friend and my husband a cousin. Because we are living overseas we were not able to mourn with our loved ones. This was very difficult for us, but by participating in this day we are able to honor them in a spiritual way that will allow us to grieve together as a family.

Creating an alter

To prepare for this day we made sugar skulls out of polymer clay, purchased fresh flowers, printed photographs, and will be lighting a candle in rememberance. We also visited one of the larger altars in Madrid as well as the Mexican Heritage museum to teach our girls a little more about the tradition before the actual day. 

Creating our altar for the first time was a very beautiful, and heavy experience. There was a mix of emotions–happiness as we remembered the lives of our loved ones, but also a deep sadness as we mourned the loss all over again. In the end I am happy that we are able to experience this new tradition with our daughters and as a family. It brings us closer to our loved ones and a deeper understanding of others’ cultures. 

Celebrating Dia de los Muertos
Large Calaveritas

If you would like to participate in Día de los Muertos, here are some ways to prepare an altar.

  1. Many use the grave of the deceased as their altar. Decorating with vibrant and colorful flowers, photographs, favorite foods and beverages, and toys for children who have passed. 
  2. If creating an altar in your home, you can include some of the items in this list:
  • White tablecloth and salt – symbolizes purity and joy. 
  • Water – to quench the thirst of the deceased from their long journey.
  • Candles – so loved ones can find their way. 
  • Incense – to cleanse the air of “bad vibes” and “bad spirits”.
  • Calaveritas (sugar skulls) – to remember that death is always present.
  • Food and drink – so the deceased can remember their favorite foods during their life on earth.
  • Photographs – Symbolizes who will be visiting the altar. Images of saints can also be included to represent a link between the living and the dead. 
  • Flowers – a festive symbol to decorate the altar where the soul will return. 


Mary, a native of Rockford, Illinois, attended DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois where she received her BA in Secondary Art Education. In 2007, she moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa after accepting a position as a high school visual arts teacher with the Cedar Rapids Community School District. She and her husband, Collin, who is a teacher in the Iowa City Community School District, reside in Cedar Rapids with their daughters, Zoey and Munroe. Zoey is five and Munroe will be turning one in October 2016. In addition to being a full time mommy, full time teacher, and writer for the mom’s blog, she is also a professional artist who has shown and published works both nationally and internationally. Mary enjoys traveling, painting, and most of all, spending time with her family.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.