February 8, 2018 Brigitte Ganger

Mexican Funeral Traditions

Cultural spotlight

Mexican Funeral Traditions
Traditional mexican Day of the dead altar with sugar skulls and candles. (Shutterstock)

Mexican culture holds many rich funeral traditions. One of the most unique parts of Mexican practices includes open acceptance of death and regular communion with the dead. Catholic influence plays an important role in influencing Mexican culture, and is particularly prominent in Mexican rituals surrounding death. 


Death is viewed a natural part of life


Children are usually socialized to understand death from an early age. They are not shielded from grief or funeral ritual. Because of this, Mexican folks tend to embrace ritual surrounding death more readily than in the rest of North America.


Quite the opposite of Jewish protocol for caring for the dead, Mexican tradition encourages mourners to spend time with the corpse before burial. Rather than rushing to bury the body, most families spend up to 48 hours with their deceased loved one. The body is kept in the house mourning the loss, usually laid in a simple coffin, or sometimes covered with just a sheet. 


These 48 hours are an opportunity for people close to the deceased person to visit the home and hold night prayers. The family in mourning receives condolences, and gifts of food or money from visitors. It is a time for all to eat, drink and reminisce together in grief. 


Possessions follow the deceased to the afterlife 


Objects of importance to the person are buried with them for use in the afterlife. According to Mexican belief, the deceased person begins a new life after they are buried. Favorite sentimental or useful possessions go in the coffin along with the dead body for burial. The deceased person can make use of the items they bring with them in times of need.


Saying goodbye


Mexican culture follows the Catholic tradition of holding a wake, or velorio, prior to burial. 


A velorio usually includes viewing of the corpse, as in most Catholic wakes. Instead of an open casket, however, the deceased person may be laid in a glass coffin or semi opaque shroud, so that there is a barrier between life and death. 


Mexican funeral traditions are deeply rooted in Catholicism. (Shutterstock)


Candles are of special importance in a velorio ceremony. Family members ensure a candle burns at each corner of the coffin, and keep any remnants for good luck. The velorio may last all night, as family socializes with mourners and all share memories of the deceased person.


A priest typically presides over the funeral ceremony. Whether the deceased person was Catholic or not, prayers are recited for their safe journey to the afterlife. Emotional responses are expected and encouraged amongst mourners at a Mexican funeral. As a community, the outpouring of grief is unabashed. 


Most Mexican funerals will follow the casket to its place of final rest for interment. Closest family members may drop a clod of earth onto the coffin, again closely following Catholic traditions for graveside service. 


Following the burial, family members continue to pray for nine consecutive days. This both protects their loved one on the journey to God, and gives mourners the opportunity to openly express grief. These prayers are called novenas. 


Day of the Dead 


Mourning doesn't end with burial and novenas. The Day of the Dead is a modern tradition that has become prevalent in Mexican culture. 


Day of the Dead takes place over three days, October 31 through November 2. It is a fiesta held in honor of deceased loved ones who have traveled to the afterlife. 


On the first day, All Hallows Eve, children invite the spirits of children to visit  earth by building altars for encouragement. The second day is All Saints Day—a day when the spirits of adults will also join in on festivities. People build more altars on the third day, All Souls Day. 


MEXICO CITY - OCT 23: Unknown participant on a Parade of Catrinas in Paseo de la Reforma Avenue, Mexico, on October 23 2016. The Day of the Dead is one of the most popular holidays in Mexico. (Shutterstock)


Cemeteries are flooded during the three-day holiday to build memorials for deceased loved ones with decorations and objects. Toys are bought for dead children, and gifts of tequila or food is a traditional offering for adult spirits. 


Folks also wear decorative skull masks, known as calaveras, which are made of chocolate or sugar. They are a tasty offering to deceased children who may be returning to earth for festivities. 


Grief is an ongoing process


Mexican funeral traditions underscore the permanence of death, and put special emphasis on ongoing grief. The dead are gone, but can be tempted back to earth for visits. Day of the Dead is a way of habitually sharing memories of those who have passed away, and a chance for mourners to revisit old grief annually. 

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