The Most Memorable Cemeteries to Experience Day of the Dead in Mexico
The Day of the Dead (or Día de los Muertos in Spanish) is one of the most important traditional celebrations in Mexico. It celebrates the circle of life by remembering the lives of those who are no longer with us. And in 2003, UNESCO included the holiday on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
There's a belief that during the first two days of November those who have passed away come back to the world of the living and enjoy all of the festivities their loved ones have prepared for them. In late October, numerous Mexican families set up "ofrendas," which are altars that pay tribute to relatives who have passed away, in their home. These altars, covered in flowers, candles and food, are also placed in public places, museums, schools, and in cemeteries.
During Día de los Muertos, it's common to visit the grave sites across the country, a custom that has existed since the early 19th century. Many travel to some of the biggest and most popular sites, while others visit the tombs of their late relatives and decorate them with pierced papers (papel picado), colorful flowers, food, pictures, candy, and even music. Those who visit their loved ones' graves usually arrive on the Day of All Saints (Nov. 1) and don't leave until the next day, which is precisely the Day of the Dead.
Over Nov. 1 and Nov. 2, Mexican cemeteries receive thousands of visitors. They are covered in light and color, and have a unique essence, full of life, celebration, and energy. Here, some of the most famous cemeteries in Mexico, and what you can expect when visiting during Día de los Muertos.
This is one of the most-visited destinations during the Day of the Dead. The graveyard is full of altars, and the tombs are covered in the iconic Mexican marigolds. After visiting the cemetery, people go to the lake where several boats travel from Pátzcuaro to the island of Janitzio to honor their ancestors in what they call "the dance of the fishermen." The lake becomes an amazing scene, completely covered in light with countless candles lighting the way for the boats. On the island, every year a public celebration is offered, with traditional dance, music and food.
Two of the most-visited cemeteries in the country are located in the capital: the Panteón San Andres Mixquic and the Panteón de Dolores.
Located south of the city, the graveyard of San Andres Mixquic, which also used to be a convent, has become a must-visit destination for both locals and travelers. Impressive altars with several layers are placed along the tombs on Oct. 31. However, it's not until Nov. 2 when it really comes alive; that night large candles accompany the colorful flowers, and thousands of people bring their own candles to walk around the tombs in what is called "la Alumbrada" (the illumination). The idea behind this event is that the living will illuminate the way for the dead, so they can come back for the night and enjoy everything that was prepared for them.
The other cemetery that receives thousands of people every year is the Panteon Civil de Dolores, mainly because many famous people are buried here. This is the largest graveyard in Latin America, it holds 260,000 tombs and is home to the graves of more than 100 Mexican celebrities, including painter Diego Rivera, singer Agustín Lara, actress Dolores Del Río, and muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros.
Mexico City holds some of the most important grave sites in the country, and even though they don't receive as many visitors as the two that were just mentioned. The Panteón Español has existed for more than 100 years and here, amid the gothic architecture, lies the body of Cantinflas, one of the most cherished actors of Mexican cinema. The other important cemetery is the Panteón Jardín, which holds the tombs of the renowned singer Jorge Negrete, the well-known actor Tin Tan, and Pedro Infante. Although the site receives many visitors in November, tourism here peaks on April 15 when people bring mariachis to Infante's tomb for the anniversary of his death.
This city is one of the most festive in the country. Here, people celebrate the Festival of Skeletons (Festival de las Calaveras) to honor José Guadalupe Posada, the artist who created the famous Catrina — the skeleton wearing the elegant dress and exotic hat that illustrates most Day of the Dead celebrations. The artist, who was born in Aguascalientes, has been at the heart of the celebration, wherein people dress up as Catrinas to enjoy dance and music, plays, gastronomic events, and a large parade.
The Panteón de Belén, one of the most beautiful graveyards in the country, can be found in Guadalajara. The cemetery is currently considered a museum, since it was only active from 1848 to 1896. During the Day of the Dead, visitors come specifically for the museum's night tours, and the tombs are decorated with floral arrangements, candles, and elements that add mysticism to the night.
Toluca, Estado de México
Only an hour drive from Mexico City, the city of Toluca has recently gained popularity for its night tours at the Panteón de La Soledad cemetery. The cemetery hosts plays that tell a different story each night. Actors appear from behind the tombs and dress up in classic gowns from the early 20th century. Additionally, on Nov. 1 people visit the graveyard holding candles, and decorate their loved ones' graves, so on Nov. 2 they can participate in a contest that spotlights the best decorations.