The most popular Day of the Dead icons are skulls and skeletons, which pop up everywhere on the days and weeks leading up to Dia de los Muertos. Day of the Dead skulls and skeletons are whimsical and colorful, rather than frightening or macabre. They symbolize mortality and the cycle of life and death. On this page, we'll talk about skulls and other popular Day of the Dead symbols.
Catrina, by Jose Guadalupe Posada
If you want to celebrate Day of the Dead, there are several other Day of the Dead symbols you should learn about, too! These are the symbols you will see at Dia de los Muertos celebrations and adorning Day of the Dead altars:
The prominence of skulls as a Day of the Dead icon harkens back to the days of the Aztecs. Back then, skulls were important icons that illustrated their belief in the existence of an active afterlife. In Mexican culture, skulls continue to symbolize death and rebirth.
Sugar skulls and marigolds
Photo Credit: Glen van Etten
Day of the Dead skulls take on many appearances in modern Day of the Dead celebrations. You'll see them as:
Day of the Dead skulls show up on altars and ofrendas, as well as graveyards and shop windows. Some people people paint their faces with black and white make-up to resemble skulls, while others may wear skull t-shirts bearing colorful sugar skull designs. Wooden or paper skull masks are also popular to wear during Day of the Dead festivities. Sugar skulls and chocolate skulls are popular gifts enjoyed by both the living and the dead. You can get them customized with the recipient's name written upon the skull's forehead. It's not creepy – it's cool!
Skulls are called calaveras in Spanish, so you will often see Day of the Dead skulls referred to as "calaveras".
Skeletons (called calacas in Spanish) are another prominent Day of the Dead icon. Day of the Dead skeletons can take many forms, but all of them are whimsical and joyful – never scary or sad.
Day of the Dead Catrinas
Photo Credit: Tomas Castelazo
Dia de los Muertos skeletons are typically long, skinny and well-dressed, like the famous skeletons drawn by Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada. Posada's skeletons are amongst the most famous Day of the Dead icons because they poke sarcastic fun at how death is the great equalizer - even the rich can't escape from death!
Posada's "Catrina" is perhaps his most well-known Day of the Dead skeleton. (You can see one of Posada's Catrina renderings at the top of this article.) She is a richly-dressed woman dressed in fancy clothes, appearing to enjoy the good life – except she is a skeleton, having succumbed to the hand of fate long ago. Even so, she continues to enjoy herself long after she has died.
As Day of the Dead approaches, you can buy skeleton statues made of wood or paper mache that show skeletons engaged in all areas of occupation, such as bakers, musicians, doctors, bullfighters, dancers, and many more. If your late uncle was a baker (for instance), you can buy one of the skeleton statues that looks like a baker and place it on his altar or next to his grave, along with other offerings. His spirit will be pleased and your efforts will make it easier for him to find his way back to visit you during the Days of the Dead.
Animal skeletons are another important part of Day of the Dead imagery – such as dog skeletons, cat skeletons, bird skeletons, horse skeletons, and more.
Click to read about more Day of the Dead icons, such as altars and ofrendas, marigolds, papel picado, and pan de muerto.
Thaneeya's newest sugar skull art is now available in a 2015 wall calendar by Andrews McMeel Publishing, so you can enjoy her sugar skull art every month (and every day) of the year! The calendar features high-quality reproductions of 13 of her Day of the Dead sugar skull designs; plus a page for September, October, November and Decemeber, 2014 — so you can start using it this year!
The 2014 calendar sold out, so order now to secure a copy!