Teaching Dia de los Muertos

While we were living in England, we often found ourselves providing input into British friends about Halloween. Although many American customs originated in the British Isles, many have been forgotten or transitioned to Bonfire Night ceremonies. We therefore made it a priority to keep the traditions of Halloween alive in our house. Arriving back in the United States, our kids were all ready to carve pumpkins, dress up in costume, and trick-or-treat. But along with all of the Halloween decorations in our local stores, we saw items like sugar skulls, which peaked my girls interest to find out more about Mexican and Central American celebration of the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).

Dia de los Muertos is a multi-day festival focusing on the gathering of friends and family to remember loved ones who have passed away and to support their spiritual journey. The festival generally starts on October 31, when ofrendas are made and taken to the graves of children  (1 November, Dia de los Inocentes) or adults (2 November, Dia de los Muertos). The graves of the dead are cleaned and decorated with the ofrendas, which contain pictures of the deceased, and their favorite foods or drinks.


Ofrendas (alters) are an important part of the celebration of Dia de los Muertos. Families will visit the graves of loved ones where they would be cleaned and decorated. These ofrendas usually take the form of marigolds, small toys, bottles of alcohol for adults, candy (especially candy skulls) and dead bread. Students can make small ofrendas to be taken to the graves of family or placed on nature tables at home. To make a homemade ofrenda, you will need clear plastic hinged baseball card holders, decorative paper (cardstock is best), plastic jewels, glue, and pens or markers. There really is no wrong way to decorate the box, but we generally cut and glue paper to the inside of the box. Children can then write messages or draw pictures to be left inside.

Tissue Paper Marigolds: 

Marigolds (cempasuchils) are the traditional flower for honoring the dead. To make tissue paper Marigolds, you will need tissue paper (golds, yellows, reds and oranges), green pipe cleaners, scissors, and a vase to arrange your flowers. To make your marigolds:

  • Step 1: Lay three full pieces of tissue paper on top of each other.
  • Step 2: Fold the pieces of paper together about every inch so that the folded paper resembles a fan. You will need to fold 1″, then flip the paper over and fold 1″ again. Continue doing this until you have folded up all the paper.
  • Step 3:  Fold your flowers in half and then loop 1.5″ of a green pipe cleaner around the paper to form a stem and twist.
  • Step 4: Depending on how large you want your flower to be, you can either choose to cut your into half or thirds.
  • Step 5: Trim the edges of the flower, generally you can round them, but you can also get creative if you feel like it like when you make a Valentine.
  • Step 5: Holding the pipe cleaner, gently open up the paper one sheet at a time, starting with the top layer. Be careful not to rip the paper. Slowly separate the middle layer and pull up toward the center. Pull the bottom layer down.



Really the short film that got my kids interested in Dia de los Muertos was a short film on Youtube by Whoo Kazoo on the festival. The short really hits a number of the traditions practiced during the festival. Another great movie is the 2014 film The Book of Life, where the protagonist (a bullfighter) sets off on a journey on Dia de los Muertos to fulfill the expectations of his family.