Dia de muertos is fascinating to me due to the fact that growing up, death and the dead were generally regarded by me to be spooky, perhaps even frightening. One either avoided the subject, or regarded it with great solemnity. This celebration instead, is ironically one about life, and remembering those that are now dead with a three-day fiesta.
Ofrenda with cempasuchil and terciopelos via Mexico Deconoscido
People go and clean and decorate the graves of their loved ones. Ofrendas, or altars are installed, upon which offerings to the souls of the dead are placed. The altars are filled with all sorts of items including bottles of liquor, favorite foods or candies, toys, sugar skulls, candied pumpkin, and most importantly cempasuchil (Mexican marigold) and terciopelos (Velvet flower aka Celosia) The Mexican marigolds (Tagetes erecta) are particularly prominent as the flower of choice.Graves, ofrendas, and homes are decorated with their brightly colored orange blooms.
Flowers being sold for Dia de Muertos at an open market via Aztec Noticias
Interestingly enough, Dia de Muertos is not alone in it’s tradition of what is known as "ancestral worship" or "ancestral veneration." Many cultures participate in a very similar ritual in which ancestors that have passed on are honored in some way. The souls of the dead are believed to be able to pass favor or influence the fortune of the living.
In the Phillipines for example, ancestor veneration is expressed during the Halloween/All Soul’s Day celebration by visiting the dead’s graves while cleaning and repairing tombs. Offerings such as prayers, candles, food, and – again – flowers, such as the national flower sampaguita (Arabian Jasmine).
I’m not quite clear on why flowers are such a common offering. If I had to guess, it would have to do something with the idea that the brightly colored and wonderfully scented flowers would bring the souls of the dead great pleasure due to the visual and olfactory experiences (although I have no idea if the souls of the dead can either see or smell). One might also postulate that the flower represents a reminder of mortality – in Buddhism, the offering of a flower represents the idea that the body will one day also fade and wilt.