Like the sun, the cempasúchil flowers guide the souls of the dead back to earth.
Marigolds (originally ‘Virgin Mary’s Gold’) is a special flower used to commemorate the Day of the Dead in Mexico. In Nahuatl* it is called cempoalxóchitl, which translates as ‘the flower with abundant petals’. Now in Mexico it is known as ‘cempasúchil’.
For the first two days of November the souls returned to the land of the living, leaving a trail of bright yellow flowers with a strong distinctive scent, so they could find their way back to the afterworld.
The living helped them along by decorating pathways, altars and graves with marigold flowers.
On the evening of November 1st, families stand vigil, often all night, by the gravesides of loved ones. The bright flowers, photos and mementos, plus any food or drink the dearly departed one might desire are placed there to tempt them to join this family reunion.
*Notes on the Nahuatl language:
Cempoala, (cempoalatl ‘place of abundant waters’) is near Veracruz, the first contact Cortés had in what would become the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
Xochimilco, xochitl (‘flower’) + milli (‘cultivated field’) + suffix -co (denotes ‘place’): ‘field of flowers’. Xochimilco is also called the Floating Gardens and is a popular place for family gatherings, especially on Sundays. Today, agriculturists are looking at this Aztec method of planting on floating gardens as a sustainable way of providing food.
Milpa: cultivated field containing the ‘three sisters’: corn, squash and beans or some type of nitrogen-fixing legume. Today, agriculturists are looking to this corn intercropping of the milpa system as a method to produce diversity and nutritional security in what was Mesoamerica.
Notes on the flowers used.
There are six significant Day of the Dead flowers: Marigolds (Cempasúchil); red Cockscomb (Cresta de Gallo), a symbol imported from Catholic Spain, representing the blood of Christ and resurrection; white Chrysanthemums (Crisantemos), another tradition imported from Catholic Spain representing peace; Baby’s Breath (Nubes, ‘clouds’) and white Hoary Stock (Alheili blanco), two flowers with a sweet and delicate fragrance, representing innocence, placed on the graves of children and those who died too young; and Gladiolas, Sword Lilies, named for the gladiators, usually Christians, who fought in the coliseums of the Roman Empire.
Notes on five of the flowers used for el Día de Muertos and their significance (in Spanish).