See How Oaxaca Celebrates Day of the Dead

During this festive time, colorful street processions, flowers, and music welcome the dead home.

To many outsiders, the icons, costumes, and rituals associated with Mexico’s Day of the Dead festivities—held around All Saints and All Souls Days (November 1 and 2, respectively) in Oaxaca and other cities—seem macabre and ghoulish. It can be difficult to conceive of death as something to celebrate.

But the country’s long tradition, which blends elements of pre-Columbian indigenous culture with Catholicism, is anything but somber. A majority of Mexicans believe that this is the time when the souls of their dead loved ones return to earth and—in keeping with an equal tradition of prizing hospitality—view these visits as a supreme occasion to eat, drink, and be merry.

In anticipation of the ephemeral guests, altars are set up in homes, schools, and in public spaces, many adorned with a photo of the honored loved one, along with favorite foods, beverages, and personal possessions. Popular offerings include pan de muerto (sweet breads decorated with bone-shaped meringues), chocolates and candies, and papier-mâché skulls.

Colorful street processions erupt periodically, day or night, filling the air with the sounds of brass bands and fireworks and the smells of crushed marigolds and copal incense. Local cemeteries come alive with candles, flowers, music, and family members paying tribute to their dearly departed.

I had the opportunity to make a short film about this unique cultural celebration in 2013 and will be returning to Oaxaca this year to witness and document what I believe to be one of the most moving and fitting ways to honor those who have gone before us.

Bob Krist, contributing photographer for National Geographic Traveler, is an award-winning freelance photographer who works regularly on assignment for magazines such as Traveler, Smithsonian, and Islands.