How to celebrate the Day of the Dead

and a calavera for the selfish

By Phil Hall

So you have lived deep and extracted all the sweetness out of life, and you have had your last meal. But, what food and drink would you like people to remember you by? What wafting smell would have the power to conjure you up from the grave, or draw you back down through the portals of heaven; to tempt you back onto this lovely balls-up of a planet?

Were you the Queen of buttered, slightly crisp and salty asparagus? Were you the King of French Cognac? Were you the Polish Prince of English wild forest mushrooms? Were you enslaved to Arabica? Were you an advocate for English cheese? Did you murder for a drink? Were you an innocent victim of chocolate? And, did you see the world in a grain of rice and eternity in a glowing coal of truffle?

On All Hallows, on November 2nd, in an act meant to both evoke and invoke the dead, Mexicans put up altars and lay out the favourite food and drink of those that they loved, respected or just plain put up with.

Traditionally, Mexicans are both comforted and comfortable in the company of their dead.

Altar tradicional de día de muertos en Milpa Alta, México DF.

How to set up an Altar to your Dead

Only two months to go to the day of the Dead. Why not try setting up a homemade British altar of your own; fumigate the demons of Halloween with some Mexican magic. The day of the dead is beautiful, spiritual, and it is also therapeutic.

Push two tables together and cover them with sheets of orange, blue, white or purple crepe, with ribbons cut out into patterns of the same material. Decorate the surfaces with lots of Marigolds and then place photos of your dear ones on the table.

Carefully, lay out the food and drink they liked, together with a few of their possessions: those tortoiseshell glasses, the hand illustrated book of German aphorisms, the teddy bear, a handful of garden flowers.

Then, before you go to bed, scatter a trail of bright yellow petals right up to the window ledge. Leave the window slightly ajar. Light the candles on the altar. Think of your muertito and go to bed. If you are lucky they will come back in the early hours, and keep you company once more.

In the morning, have a nibble or a sip from the food and drink on the altar. You will find, as Mexicans have repeatedly pointed out to me, that the food and drink have lost a little of their flavour. This is the positive proof that the essence of the food has been consumed by visiting relatives and friends.

When I die, on the altar, next to my picture, I want a bowl of cold purple beetroot borsht with sour cream, and a taco or two made with cuitlacoche and melted Oaxaca cheese. Don’t forget the tequila.

Bread of the Dead on sale in Coyoacan, photo by Cristina Zapata Pérez

Bread of the Dead for Masterchef

Another key signifier of the Day of the Dead is a special bread. I made it to try to get onto Masterchef. I remember Bread of the Dead from Xalapa. I was studying at the university of Vera Cruz in 1984. It was a chilly November morning.

Xalapa is the centre of a coffee growing region. It has a view of two volcanos: the Pico de Orizaba, rising in the distance like Kilimanjaro, and the Cofre de Perote, a smaller, broken little thing.

It’s the day before my birthday, the Day of the Dead, and at the university, in the cafeteria they are selling a simple lumpy looking cake-bun sprinkled with sugar. And they are selling cups of hot, chocolate, pineapple and vanilla flavoured atole, serving it from large aluminium pots.

My classmates laugh.

This is Pan de Muerto. they say and point out that it is made in the shape of a corpse.

Is it? I look at it. It tastes better than Panetone, buttery, fragrant and yeasty. The sticky atole warms me in the autumn morning.

I make the Pan de Muerto carefully for Masterchef and it rises three times. Then I make the rompope and they both taste as I imagine they should, and I am sure its good because my Mexican family eats the whole batch. My wife tells her mother:

Yes, he really did make bread of the dead and it tasted just right.

I make another batch. The crust is a little darker this time, better, ready for tomorrow morning.

They have asked me to come at breakfast time. My Pan de Muerto and rompope will go down well.

London is almost deserted. It’s early. I arrive and they take me to a room and a tall young woman with glasses films me and smiles. A more serious and older woman interviews me.

But she doesn’t seem too concerned about the food or what it means.

I take out the green Tequila shot glasses and pour them a taste of the cold yellow Rompope, and then I take out the Pan de Muerto and place it on its large decorated clay plate and they both try a little piece and drink the rompope.

The interviewer says:

Cake. Hmm, nice. But she doesn’t take another piece.

She asks me. Why do you want to come onto Masterchef?

It would be nice. I say. And I smile, relaxed.


Well, I love Mexican food.

I see.

What would you do if you won? she asked.

I’d be really pleased, and…


Well, perhaps a restaurant.

You would be the cook?

Not really. My wife would be in charge. I would help.

Do you cook Sunday lunch?

I help my wife.

Why don’t you ask her to come along?

No, I don’t think she would like that.

There was a silence.

Well, thank you for coming. ‘I’d just like you to know that you reached the final stage of the eliminations. Very few people do that.’

Thank you. I left the building, walking out into a cold, bright empty street, the shutters just opening.

I walked into a smart Italian restaurant and ordered Eggs Benedict by way of consolation.

The Eggs Benedict were very good, with their Hollandaise sauce, and before I left the waiter came back and I told him what had happened. He sounded interested.

I’ll take some to the cook.

It’s like Panetone, I called after him as he went to the back of the restaurant, but with orange water, more butter and a little anise.’  

The chef tried it. He liked it. The waiter smiled at me, ‘He wants to know the recipe.

I noted the recipe down for the chef, contented, and then left.

Calavera for the selfish

Another essential part of the Mexican tradition is the Calavera. You have to write a poem ending in the punchline, Death. In it you make fun of people’s foibles. My calavera is dedicated to the supporters of Adam Smith and the idea that greed is good.

Death came today and gave me some advice.
She said;

‘Good news: I’ve designed a special diet for you.
If you follow my instructions
Two years from now you’ll be as thin as I am.
After all, isn’t your health the most important thing?
And your own happiness must be your prime concern.
If you know what I mean.’

And death winked, knowingly and smiled.

Only when you are happy can you make others happy.
Do you agree?
Only when you are satisfied can you satisfy others.
Only when you have gathered enough money
Do you have money to share.

Forget thinking about what’s wrong before you act.
It’s not your job to put the world to rights.
And all your reading and writing. What’s it for?
It’s intellectual masturbation, and changes nothing.
It won’t change anything.
Stop pretending to be nice.

Human nature is human nature.
Get real, you shlemiel!

The body is where it’s at, not the mind.
Exercise instead: swim, run around, cycle about
Exorcise the ghost of your conscience.
It’s an illusion anyway, a category error.

Enjoy the things you choose to buy!
To live needn’t be to suffer.
Be detached from the poverty and unpleasantness
That very occasionally surrounds you.
You’re not responsible for it.
Think of other people’s misfortune as instructive.
These are not your problems, they are someone else’s.
“Il faut cultiver votre jardin” remember.

Look, my little Arjuna, be all that you can be!
It’s meaningless anyway.
Be consummately free.’

Then death smiled again.

‘But one day, perhaps, even sooner than you guess
When you’re fed up with your, precious Atman, and your self
Meet me in Switzerland, and I’ll put a stop to your life
And crush your wizened little heart, like this.

She closed her fist.

And you’ll get what you deserve.
That heaven of nothingness
You always secretly believed in
Will be your place of rest and
Proof of your

Part of this article was originally published in the Guardian, the Word of Mouth section

Phil Hall is a university lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.

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