If the melody of celebration, the colorful ofrendas (altars honoring the dead), the paths of marigold petals, and elaborate paper crafts aren’t enough to beckon souls from the afterworld, the aromas will show the way during Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

Dia de los Muertos, a traditional Mexican holiday typically celebrated November 2, is the day souls of the dead, as the tradition goes, return to visit their living family members. The holiday has deep roots running back to Aztec and Mayan cultures more than three thousand years ago, with modern branches throughout Latino, Hispanic, and other cultures worldwide.

“We celebrate when people died. They are resting their souls,” says Haniny Hillberg, chairman of Hispanic Festival Inc. of St. Louis, a primary organizer for the St. Louis area’s Day of the Dead festivities. “You party with the person who died.”

In Haniny’s native Bolivia, the celebration always involved going to the cemetery to leave baked treats (the sweeter the better), light candles, and sometimes have a picnic at the gravesite. The tradition in Mexico goes a step further with spending the night in the cemetery. Candlelight is plenty for Haniny and her family. But spending the night?

She demurred. “No, no, I don’t think so.”

Colorful ofrenda, a Day of the Dead altar at Missouri History Museum

A Variety of Traditions

Although traditionally Dia de los Muertos is celebrated on November 1 and 2, some cultures celebrate the days of the dead from October 18 through November 9, with each day dedicated to different groups of souls, according to the Mattie Rhodes Center website. The center focuses on family and individual well-being and provides cultural arts programming among other services.

Though Dia de los Muertos traditions and interpretations vary from culture to culture or sometimes from family to family, don’t mistake the Day of the Dead for Halloween and please, revelers plead, don’t call it “Mexican Halloween.” The differences between the American observance of Halloween on October 31 and the Day or Days of the Dead celebrations are stark.

Pop culture has appropriated—some would charge misappropriated—the holiday and theme for horror movies and countless flicks about zombies. Halloween features sweet treats for children while imagining witches, vampires, and other frights that go bump in the night. Conversely, Day of the Dead invites the dearly departed to return among the living, guided by a cacophony of sights, sounds, and aromas.

“Death is a natural part of life,” Haniny says. Day of the Dead “allows people to talk and laugh about it and lose some of their fear.”

Color and flavor on Cherokee Street.

Some of the imagery and symbolism seems to dovetail with Halloween—Day of the Dead features calaveras (skulls) and calacas (skeletons)—but look closer at the icing décor and artistry to understand the focus as treats for both the living and the dead. Some celebrations include a parade of La Catrina, a towering female skeleton with vibrant makeup and a flamboyant hat, a figure and face that appear at once subtly seductive and celebratory. She is one of the most iconic symbols of the holiday.

On the eastern side of the state, few places are as colorful and aromatic during Day of the Dead as St. Louis’s Cherokee Street, from roughly I-55 to Grand Boulevard, which is bedecked with artwork and elaborate ofrendas, energized by festive music and families sharing sweet, baked goods.

2020 Dia de los Muertos altar honoring Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Diana’s Bakery at 2843 Cherokee St. offers more than one hundred Mexican treats, from conchas and churros to pan de muerto (bread of the dead), and the signature sweet of Dia de los Muertos: skull sugar cookies. Pan de muerto and skull sugar cookies are rarely missing from Latino and Hispanic tables and ofrendas during Day of the Dead.

The bakery is named after owner Ana Vazquez’s daughter. Ana’s husband, Rufugio, is the head baker, along with their son, Emmanuel. Father and son fire up the ovens before dawn each day and follow the family recipes Refugio tucked away from his home in Guanajuato, Mexico.

Fewer than eight miles to the north, the Missouri History Museum at 5700 Lindell Blvd. in Forest Park plans an array of exhibits and demonstrations for the 8th annual Day of the Dead in conjunction with Hispanic Festival Inc. of St. Louis. The museum is housed at the Missouri Historical Society, which also includes the Soldiers Memorial Military Museum and the Historical Society Library and Research Center.

K.C. Royals Tee Up Celebration.

On the west side of the state, the Kansas City area features a plethora of Dia de los Muertos celebrations and events, hosted by the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Mattie Rhodes Art Gallery, the Kansas City Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and the Greater Kansas City Hispanic Collaborative, and a massive celebration and parade in the other Kansas City, Kansas, just beyond the Show-Me State border.

The Kansas City Royals had also planned to get in on recognizing the holiday, as of press time for this magazine, even if a bit early. Though Dia de los Muertos is traditionally celebrated in November, the Royals were planning a celebration at Kauffman Stadium on September 17. As part of the planned Royals’ Viva Los Reales celebration, fans who purchased special-themed tickets would received a custom Dia de los Muertos bobblehead when they entered The K. Individuals and families were encouraged to dress in traditional holiday attire.

As evidence that the holiday is finding a home throughout the state, Missouri State University in Springfield is planning exhibits that spotlight Day of the Dead.

“There are quite a few varieties of traditions. Different people have different interpretations,” says Carlos Gomez, president and CEO of the Kansas City Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “I see it as a celebration of life. You remember the good times, their impact on the community.”

Altars and Memories

The ofrendas and the offerings on the altar are paramount to the holiday. Ofrendas will have photos of the loved one as well as that person’s favorite food, and things that were special for them, whether that’s tobacco, a particular brand of liquor or other drink, and other memorials.

Peruvians emphasize musical instruments in their celebrations. Panamanians and Venezuelans use seashells for décor, art, and other adornments. Some traditions insist on black tablecloths with white runners, while Mexican celebrations showcase vibrant, bright, festive colors.

“You celebrate by celebrating who they are,” Carlos says. “It’s a way to say, ‘We miss you and we still remember you.’ That’s how I look at it.”

Carlos says his grandfather “didn’t fear death,” sharing that as one example of varying views of death and dying.

“He looked forward to meeting God,” he says. “Most people would not look forward to dying.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, four-legged members of the family are often memorialized and celebrated with family altars.

“Pets are definitely members of the family,” Carlos says. “The altar is all the favorite things of that person. What is it they loved?”

Those additions are vitally important to many family altars, Haniny agrees.

“Pets are part of the family,” she says. “They’ve been with you during the good days and the bad days.”

RBG Adorned 2020 Altars

The ofrendas lining Cherokee Street in 2020, when the COVID pandemic, social distancing, and other restrictions limited public events, featured several family pets and recently deceased public figures. Some altars were adorned with photos of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died September 18, 2020, at the age of eighty-seven. Ginsburg championed gender equality and immigrant rights and was an important figure for the Hispanic and Latino communities.

Fittingly, some of the 2020 Day of the Dead baked sweets and delicacies were embellished with icing or candies that formed RGB’s trademark, bejeweled collars that represented her perseverance and determination.

Ginsburg’s late-life health issues reflected some of the symbolism of Day of the Dead, Haniny says. “They suffer due to illness, old age, aches, and pains,” she says softly. “We’re celebrating that they no longer suffer with those things.”

Even though families are saddened by a loved one’s departure, the oldest Day of the Dead traditions insists on dry eyes—no crying—lest the way back from the afterworld be made slippery by tears.

A New Tradition

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the definition of the term “cultural heritage” goes beyond monuments and collections of objects, and the organization added Dia de los Muertos to the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008.

Though the 2021 Day of the Dead celebration might again be tempered by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Dia de los Muertos is gaining new ground in Missouri, smack-dab in the middle of America’s melting pot of cultures and groups.

“I think we’re establishing a big tradition here,” Haniny says.

Public Exhibitions for Dia de los Muertos

Museums, galleries, and festivals around the state have long-standing histories of annual celebrations and exhibits, which continued in 2020 virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Visitors planning to head to public exhibitions this year are advised to call or check museum websites for the most current guest policies and hours.

Missouri History Museum

5700 Lindell Blvd., Forest Park, St. Louis

Dia de los Muertos and a celebration of Latinx culture

1-5 PM Friday, Nov. 5

11 AM-7 PM Saturday, Nov. 6

Hispanic Festival Inc. of St. Louis

Location TBD

11 AM. Saturday, November 6

9 AM Sunday, November 7

Mattie Rhodes Art Gallery

919 W. 17th St., Kansas City

Hours: Thursdays through Saturdays, noon–5 PM

Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

4825 Oak St., Kansas City

Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays 10 AM–5 PM

Fridays 10 AM–9 PM

Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays

The Kansas City Hispanic Chamber of Commerce

Greater Kansas City Hispanic Collaborative

107 W. 10th St., Kansas City