Drop-Dead Fun: Dia de los Muertos in Indy

Prancing skeletons? Grinning candy skulls? Yes, it’s the season of Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos. Though the subject matter might seem eerie, the traditional Mexican holiday, officially November 1 and 2 but celebrated all this month around the world, is more merry than macabre.

Day of the Dead marks a time when souls of those who have died rejoin the living and, well, party down.
Friends and family congregate in cemeteries to remember deceased loved ones and offer up favorite snacks and drinks—tequila, perhaps—from when they were alive. The holiday is growing in popularity in Indy, with celebrations ranging from big blowouts to small, intimate ceremonies.

No, it isn’t the same as Halloween.
Though it shares the same spooky season, unlike Halloween, this fiesta celebrates the continuation of life with a belief that death is not the end, but rather the beginning of a new stage in existence. “It’s more like a family reunion,” says Nicole Martinez-LeGrand, cofounder of Latino-American arts collective NOPAL Cultural.

Hit the biggest Día de los Muertos fest in the city.
Cultural heavyweights and next-door neighbors Indiana State Museum and Eiteljorg Museum, with support from NOPAL and the Mexican Consulate, roll out their annual joint celebration on Saturday, October 29. The State Museum offers plenty of make-and-take activities—DIY sugar skulls and papel picado (perforated paper), paper flower making, and face painting. The Eiteljorg presents art exhibits and musical performances that dive deep into the day’s symbolism.

Get into an “altared” state.
Retablos, or altars meant to honor the dead, fill the Eiteljorg’s Lilly Theater this month.

Smaller neighborhood groups are spreading the fun, too.
On Pleasant Run Parkway, the Day of the Dead Barth Bridge Fiesta on November 5 includes folk art, live music, craft workshops, and much more. Come dressed in your finest calaca (skeleton) attire.

Dem bones gonna rise again.
Sugar skulls, cakes that look like bones, oversized jangling skeletons—you’ll see plenty of femurs and sternums during Day of the Dead. What’s that all about? The happy dancing skeletons, whose grande dame is dubbed La Catrina, symbolize departed souls as well as the ability to laugh at death itself. 

Yep, you can eat those sugar skulls.
Probably the most iconic of all Day of the Dead accouterment is the sugar skull (calavera), candy totems adorned with icing and beads used at the altar (ofrenda). Though the skulls are more decorative than they are a delicacy, the State Museum will be prepping 1,000 edible ones that you can finish with glossy icing.

This is all a fairly new tradition.
It started around the turn of the 19th century, when Mexican political cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada drew up some caricatures depicting rich folks as fancy skeletons. The most famous was “Catrina,” donning a plumed hat and long dress.

More hoosiers are marking this holiday.
Some 2,000 visitors came to last year’s festivities on the Canal. “I think it’s a growing recognition by the community that our events are a great way to celebrate the Day of the Dead,” says Joanna Hahn, school programs manager at the State Museum.

This día is all about unidad.
There’s no question this celebration brings families and friends together, but because death is an inevitable part of everyone’s life, Martinez-LeGrand sees Day of the Dead as a way to bring people of different cultures together. “There’s a lot of negative stuff out there these days. As different as we are, [this holiday] reminds us we are the same.”