Day of the Dead Lesson Plans
Explore the various ways that cultures honor and remember people who have passed away.
By Kristen Kindoll
The Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos is a holiday that brings together family and friends as they pray for and remember deceased loved ones. First celebrated in Mexico during the time of the Aztecs, Dia de los Muertos marks a symbolic communion with dead family members. Celebrants take this time to honor their ancestors' legacies; focusing on what their lives meant, and still mean, to the living. The festivities occur from October 31st to November 2nd in countries throughout the world. As with most holidays, food, decorations, and traditions are vital to the celebration.
History of the Day of Dead
Dia de Los Muertos' originated with the Aztecs, Maya, Olmec, and other indigenous Mexican cultures. The ancient festival was dedicated to the goddess, Mictecacihaulti, Queen of the underworld and protector of the bones of the dead. Similar holidays are celebrated in other parts of the world. For instance, Dia de Finados is a national holiday in Brazil. On this day, people file in a procession from churches, praying and holding lighted candles as they progress toward cemeteries. In all countries, Catholics celebrate All Saint's Day or All Hallows on November first. This day recognizes the many unknown, unsung, and forgotten saints, who are generally referred to as saints who have fallen asleep. Catholics dedicate All Saint's Day to connecting with, and praying for these deceased people. November second is set aside to remember and intercede for the rest of the faithful departed and is called All Souls Day.
Celebrating the Day of the Dead
People celebrating the Day of the Dead, and comparable festivals held throughout the world, believe it is easier for the souls of the departed to visit people on earth on these special days. By building altars and providing food and drink, it is hoped that the souls will come to visit and to hear the prayers of the living. During the two-day period, families clean gravesites, decorate headstones, and present offerings. While these celebrations can be jovial and light hearted, it is still important to maintain respect. As a visitor or tourist, it is necessary to preserve a measure of distance to allow privacy for those conducting their spiritual rites.
Symbolism and Vocabulary for the Day of the Dead
When exploring the Day of the Dead in your classroom, it is important to introduce the vocabulary and symbols used in conjunction with the festival. Understanding the words and meanings will enrich the experience of learning about this celebration.
- Water is used to quench the thirst of the dead.
- Candles light a path for the dead and are signs of freedom and hope.
- Flowers are used in abundance, frequently orange marigolds, which signify love and friendship.
- Dogs are loyal companions, helping the dead across the waters of the underworld.
- Mats (petate) are placed at the foot of altars. Petate were used to roll up the dead for cremation in ancient times. A list of vocabulary words and books for children can be found at the Museum of Folk Art.
Art and Imagery for the Day of the Dead
Dia de Los Muertos art is expressed in colorful and lavish images and sculptures. The hairless dog, skulls and skeletons are all imagery seen during the holiday. The Day of the Dead Folk Art gallery has beautiful depictions of the vibrant art created for this celebration. Masks are made to look like skulls. Skeletons are depicted in costumes; flowing dresses for women, and crisp black suits for men. José Guadalupe Posada's painting La Calavera de la Catrina is one of the most famous works of art portraying the Day of the Dead. His caricature of a Mexican upper-class female has become linked with the holiday. Catrina figures are an integral part of the of the festival. You can have your class create their own artistic rendering of the holiday using this lesson plan.
Traditional Foods For the Day of the Dead
As with most celebrations, food is a plentiful. A sumptuous banquet is prepared on behalf of the dead. Chocolate skulls are inscribed with the names of deceased loved ones. A sweet, egg bread is a vital component of the celebration. Round loaves of this bread can be found in every household and bakery during the celebration. However, it is also quite often formed into the shape of a skull or a rabbit. A white frosting which looks like twisty bones decorates on top of the bread. Day of the Dead recipes is a useful link that details how to make sugar skulls and how to prepare some of the traditional dishes. You can also use some of the follow lesson plans to introduce your class to this interesting holiday.
Day of the Dead Lesson Plans:
Day of the Dead: Letter to a Deceased Pet is designed for pupils to explore the Mexican celebration. Similar to the Mexican tradition with regard to loved ones, children write a letter to a deceased pet. They can also present their letter and a picture of the pet to the class. A graphic organizer comparing the Day of the Dead with Halloween is also included.
Calaveras Puppets is a good resource for helping children making skeleton puppets similar to those used in the Day of the Dead festivities. Tracing and connecting the skeletal form on poster board, students create a moveable puppet. They also listen to the Mexican story, "Sister Death and the Healer".
The Heart of Human Experience: Culture of Azteca explores Aztec civilization. There are many lessons on this one page! Children will make a calendar, read maps, and learn about Aztec food, all while experiencing exposure to the music and culture of the Aztecs.