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#4 Blog 2023

Día de los Muertos Around the World: A Cross-Cultural Perspective

October 25, 2023

Día de los Muertos Around the World: A Cross-Cultural Perspective

Use this free educational guide and lesson plan to teach students about Día de los Muertos and other day of the dead celebrations around the world.


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Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is one of many rich and vibrant traditions celebrated around the world in which people remember and honor their deceased loved ones, keeping their memories alive through various rituals, customs and symbolic offerings. While the celebration of Día de los Muertos has its roots in indigenous Mexican cultures, it has evolved over time to include elements of Catholicism, coinciding with All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day.

The Day of the Dead and similar traditions are celebrated with different variations and interpretations that reflect diverse cultures across the world. In the United States, for instance, the holiday has gained popularity due to the growing Mexican immigrant communities and the influence of Mexican culture. The film industry has played a significant role in spreading awareness about Día de los Muertos, with movies like "Coco" and "The Book of Life" introducing the holiday to a global audience. These portrayals have helped to highlight the universal themes of remembrance, love and respect for ancestors—themes that are central to the Day of the Dead.

The global celebration serves as a testament to the power of cultural traditions in bringing people together and fostering a sense of shared humanity. In this educational guide and lesson plan, students can learn not only about Día de los Muertos in Mexico but also about other celebrations in Guatemala, China, Ireland and Japan, to help them see the common threads that connect different cultures. Included is an optional research exercise where student groups can research and present on celebrations throughout the world.

Time Tip!

I recognize that there is not time for all these videos in a single class period, so I recommend just choosing one, maybe two! For certain videos, I’ve also included times to skip ahead to where applicable.

Día de los Muertos in Mexico

Introduce students to the holiday, learn about its origins and customs, and see how it’s been propelled into popular culture through its portrayal in film.

Remote video URL

Coco Explains

Watch this clip from the movie “Coco” about Día de los Muertos. (0:45 seconds)

Discussion Questions

  1. How has the portrayal of Día de los Muertos in movies like “Spectre,” “Coco” and “The Book of Life” shaped global perceptions of the holiday?
  2. How is Día de los Muertos a hybrid tradition combining indigenous rituals and Catholic practice?
  3. How do offerings at home altars and cemeteries play a role in the celebration of Día de los Muertos?
  4. Discuss the significance of "calaveras de azúcar" (sugar skulls) and "pan de muerto" (bread of the dead) in Día de los Muertos celebrations.
  5. Discuss the significance of La Catrina and how she has evolved from a satirical drawing to an important icon of Mexican national identity.
  6. How do Mexican urban centers and rural areas differ in their observance of Día de los Muertos?

China’s Hungry Ghost Festival

In China, the Hungry Ghost Festival, also known as the Ghost Festival, is celebrated either on the night of the 14th day, or on the 15th day (depending on where you live in China), of the seventh month of the lunar year, known in the West as August. Introduce students to this celebration and learn about its ancient roots in Buddhism. To save time, start the video at 0:45.

Remote video URL

Discussion Questions

  1. How is the practice of "feeding" the ghosts during the Hungry Ghost Festival symbolic, and what does it represent in terms of the relationship between the living and the dead?
  2. What precautions do people take during the ghost month to protect themselves from vengeful spirits?
  3. What are some of the taboos and activities that people avoid during the ghost month, and why do they believe it is bad luck to engage in these activities?
  4. How do the practices of burning joss paper and offering food and entertainment to the spirits during the Hungry Ghost Festival reflect the beliefs and values of Taoism and Buddhism?
  5. What is the significance of the paper lanterns in the Hungry Ghost Festival, and how do they help guide the spirits back to their realm?

Guatemala’s Kite Festival

The Festival de Barriletes Gigantes, or Giant Kite Festival, in Guatemala, takes place each year during the Day of the Dead. Introduce students to this variation of the holiday and learn about the cultural significance of designing the kites and about the important cultural values they reflect. To save time, start the video at 2:20.

Remote video URL

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the cultural significance of the Giant Kite Festival in Guatemala on All Saints' Day? How does it serve as a means of honoring and communicating with ancestors?
  2. How do the themes of the kites reflect the values and issues important to the Guatemalan people?
  3. What is the debated origin of the giant kites and the kite festival, and how does it relate to Mayan traditions and beliefs?
  4. How does the preparation and design of the kites, including the time and materials required, contribute to their significance and meaning?
  5. What did you find most interesting or surprising about the festival, and would you be interested in attending it in the future? Why or why not?

Ireland’s Samhain Festival

Did you know that many of the Halloween celebrations we enjoy today in the United States owe their origins to the ancient festival of Samhain celebrated by ancient Celts? Learn more about Samhain and how some of these ancient traditions shaped how we celebrate Halloween in the United States and elsewhere. To save time, start the video at 0:30.

Remote video URL

Discussion Questions

  1. During Samhain, why do people in Ireland leave out meals for their family members who have died?
  2. What materials are used to make traditional homemade masks for Samhain, and why are these masks important?
  3. How did the tradition of using turnips for scary lanterns during Samhain start, and what do people use now?
  4. What are some games or activities that people do during Samhain to celebrate the harvest season?
  5. How do people protect themselves and their homes during Samhain, and what symbols or traditions represent this protection?

Oregon’s Japanese Obon Festival

Every summer Portland, Ore., celebrates the Japanese Buddhist custom of Obon honoring the spirits of one’s ancestors. The festival brings together people of all generations to enjoy Japanese music, food and traditional dance.

Remote video URL

Discussion Questions

  1. How do Japanese Americans in Portland celebrate the Obon Festival, and what is the significance of this celebration for the community?
  2. Discuss the role of the Issei (first-generation Japanese Americans) in bringing the Obon traditions to the United States. How have these traditions evolved or been preserved over the generations?
  3. In the video, a fourth-generation Japanese American mentions feeling disconnected from their past because they don’t Japanese. How do events like the Obon Festival help to bridge this gap and foster a sense of community and identity among Japanese Americans?
  4. Describe the history and significance of the Minidoka swing band. How does music and dance play a role in preserving the history and culture of Japanese Americans, especially those who were interned during World War II?
  5. The video mentions the importance of sharing traditions with younger generations, such as the Gosei (fifth-generation Japanese Americans). How can cultural events like the Obon Festival help to shape the identity of younger Japanese Americans and ensure the continuation of cultural traditions?

Extension Research Activity

Assign students to groups. Each group will research Day of the Dead celebrations in different countries and cultures. They should focus on the unique customs, traditions and significance of the celebrations in each culture.

After the research, each group will choose three examples of Day of the Dead celebrations from different parts of the world and prepare a brief presentation about them. The presentation should include the following information for each example:

  1. Name of the festival or celebration.
  2. Country or culture where it is celebrated.
  3. Description of the customs and traditions associated with the celebration.
  4. Significance and meaning of the celebration in that culture.

Groups will then present their findings to the class, showcasing the cultural diversity that surrounds the concept of honoring the dead.


Whether it’s Día de los Muertos in Mexico, the Hungry Ghost Festival in China, the Giant Kite Festival in Guatemala, Samhain in Ireland or the Japanese Obon festival in Portland, the concept of honoring and celebrating ancestral spirits through unique rituals and festivities is one that resonates broadly. What do your students do to honor loved ones and keep their memories alive? Let us know in the comments below!

Andy Kratochvil
Andy Kratochvil is an SML team member who loves hiking, video games, scary books, Mexican food, and finding great content for the Share My Lesson community. He studied political science and French at California State University, Fullerton and received his Master’s in International Affairs from... See More

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