June 24, 2024

The Day of the Dead in Mexico is a celebration for the 5 senses

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The Day of the Dead in Mexico smells like cempasuchil flowers and copal incense. It has a sweet taste. Sounds and colors abound. There are photos, candles, and music all over. The hands of artisans prepare the altars to honor their ancestors.

Although it is an intangible tradition borne down from pre-Hispanic cultures, Day of the Dead is also a celebration for all the senses—even if one of them is failing you. Gerardo Ramírez, who over the years has become almost blind, sums it all up in one line: “You honor people; you connect with the past.”


Together, two smells show dead souls the way out of the underworld: cempasúchil—a type of marigold whose name means “flower of 20 petals in Náhuatl language”—and a tree resin called copal burned at altars.

Arenazas says the flowers smell like the “sweet, fresh, honest work” of the farmers like her, who dedicate unending days to caring for the flowers. They also smell of “Mexican pride,” she said.

The native species of cempasúchil smells so strong you can almost hear it, said Verenice Arenazas, a young woman who traded her HR job for her family’s traditional flower field. “As soon as you move it, it tells you, ‘here I am; look at me'” she said.

In conclusion, her family this year produced 17,000 cempasúchil plants in Xochimilco, Mexico City’s famed canal-crossed southern borough. Arenazas’ family grows two types of cempasúchil: those grown by selecting seeds from the most potent-smelling flowers and those that are genetically modified. Both are nearly sold out, she said with a smile.

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