November 2nd marks Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a 3000 year old ritual honoring and celebrating friends and family members who have died. San Francisco’s Mission district is the center of festivities in the Bay Area; the annual parade starts today at sundown and altar installations in Garfield Park can be seen between 4:30 and 10:30 PM. You can also stop by the Global Exchange Store in San Francisco (map) for everything you need to make your own altar!

Over 500 years ago, when the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in Mexico, they witnessed a ritual they believed to be sacrilegious and barbaric. The Spanish thought the indigenous people were mocking death and attempted to unsuccessfully abolish the ritual. The Spanish saw death as the end of life, while the Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations believed death was a continuation of life; death was not considered to be a separate entity.

The Spanish eventually realized that this native ritual was not going to die, so they “Christianized” it, moving the ritual to coincide with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (November 1st and 2nd). Presently, the festival is not only celebrated all over Mexico, Central and South America, but also in all major cities in the U.S.

San Francisco celebrates Dia de los Muertos with a procession in the Mission District and altar installations in Garfield Park. You can find the procession route, hours of the ceremonies, and directions to Garfield Park here.

Making your own altar is another way to celebrate Dia de los Muertos. Stop by the Global Exchange Store in San Francisco (map) for everything you need to Fair Trade your altar. We have everything from locally produced sugar skulls, to handmade skeleton figurines from Mexico and Peru, to sterling silver milagros.

Dia de los Muertos can teach us all something about living. While the Spanish Conquistadors once believed the ritual mocked death, the festival actually celebrates death as a part of life. The message is universal and unifying, and has inspired me to end this post with the words of Lebanese poet, Kahlil Gibran:

“Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.

And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.

And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.”

-Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet