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Dia de los Muertos: homemade sugar skulls & an ofrenda for Marcia

One of the marigold-heavy ofrendas on display in Mexico City

Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) was always one of my favorite holidays during my time living in Mexico. The elaborate, colorful ofrendas (altars)… the well-dressed Catrina statues the tasty pan de muertothe fascinating traditions at the cemetaries… It was so interesting to spend two years in a culture that not only felt comfortable talking about death, but actually celebrated it.  I shared several photos from one year’s festivities around Mexico City in this post, and I’ve definitely missed all the rituals the last two years back here in the US.

My mom humoring me by eating at a taco street vendor in our hometown back in Sept 2009. :)

But this year’s Dia de los Muertos holds even more meaning for me than any I experienced in Mexico.  It falls on November 2nd, just two days before the anniversary of my mom’s death last year.  She passed away on a chilly fall day in Grand Island, Nebraska after a year and a half of battling lung cancer. We often joked together that she would have lived a more devil-may-care lifestyle if she’d known that was coming; a stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis after never even having smoked a cigarette seemed a bit crap.

I’ve been thinking for a while about what to do in her honor as the calendar creeps up on one whole year that she’s been gone. One of my friends does an extravagant, multi-course dinner every year in the theme of her home state to honor the memory of the restaurant owner who taught her the key tenets of Midwestern cooking– dairy, meat, and booze. I love that idea, but I wasn’t sure I’d make it through a reprise of the last meal Mom & I cooked together without getting a little weepsy this year.

Visiting the Dia de los Muertos displays in Coyoacan with my mom in October 2009.

Luckily, the traditions surrounding Dia de los Muertos offered the perfect solution, along with perfect timing. In fact, Marcia’s last trip abroad was to visit us in DF during October 2009, so she got to see all of the ceremony firsthand & loved it! I decided to assemble my own ofrenda to celebrate her, led by my friend Lesley’s great how-to guide.  I was buoyed by discovering that friend Ross had a whole garden full of marigolds to share, the flower always seen adorning altars in Mexico.  And we already had the iconic Catrina and Catrin statues, purchased with my Mom’s guidance at the Coyoacan DDLM market.

Tracking down calaveras de azucar proved to be a challenge in the DC area, but I came across an extensive website — www.mexicansugarskull.com — where I was able to buy all the accoutrements to make my own sugar skulls at home. I was slightly afraid this would turn into an arts-and-crafts disaster, but Angela’s site did a pretty good sales job, claiming “even second graders” can do it. :)  And finally, I was able to special-order orange blossom water (a common pan de muerto ingredient) from the Italian Store in my neighborhood for a mere $2.99.

Making the Sugar Skulls

Early last week I started work on the long pole in the tent: the sugar skulls. I started with a five-pounds-of-sugar test run, carefully heeding the dire warnings on the website (Don’t make them on a rainy day! Sugar hates humidity! Don’t use crappy meringue powder!). I opted for the “Oaxacan Medium Skull” mold from the various options available, which I liked because it was very 3-D (you make the front & back and then adhere them together with frosting) but wasn’t so big that you have to scoop out the insides to get it to dry properly. The process was surprisingly quick– just mash sugar into the plastic mold, scrape off the back with a flat edge, and flip it onto a piece of cardboard.

Halfway through my five pounds of sugar skull-making run! The mixture of sugar, meringue powder & water should feel like beach sand.

They’re supposed to dry for 12 hours. Because I’m anal, I gave the 14 skulls a few days to relax on a card table set up in our living room.  But during that time, I accidentally knocked one skull-half onto the ground, and amazingly it did not break! After that litmus test, I felt confident enough to email a few friends to see if they might be interested in joining me to decorate the skulls. I still hedged my bets, though, promising a big batch of chili to eat in case this project was an unmitigated disaster. :)

On Friday night, I made another five pounds worth of skulls, even though it had rained during the day and weather.com claimed 97% humidity at 9AM. I flipped our A/C on in the morning, and the skulls turned out fine. I whipped up a couple batches of royal icing around noon on Sunday, and began assembling the skull halves together– this was probably the most tedious part of the process. Their royal icing recipe dries crazy-fast, so at least there were no worries with things slipping around.

Rows of assembled sugar skulls, awaiting their time in the makeup chair...

Bright and festive icing, all ready to decorate some skulls!

That evening, a few folks came over and we dined on a new chili recipe John had tested out (verdict: tasty but futzy, as I guess one should expect when one is making one’s own chili powder & tripling a recipe). Then, we plopped the piles of neon royal icing I’d made into the icing bags, complete with zip ties.

Jenny and I awkwardly fill up the fancy icing bags. Normally I am a big proponent of ziplocs or baggies for dispensing frosting, but I have to say, these things were worth the $4 I spent.

We gathered everyone around the table with their blank skulls, and set to work!

Silence fell over the room as everyone focused intently on their designs...

We found that Leah's pecan pie helped provide the energy needed for this project... Also note the piles of colorful foil & sequins/confetti at the ready, and toothpicks came in handy as well.

For a group consisting largely of engineers, diplomats, architects, and lawyers, I was quite impressed with the level of creativity displayed in the end results:

A lovely array of calaveras courtesy our artistic friends! Marcia's is in the middle of the front row-- often Mexicans inscribe the name of the deceased on the skull's forehead.

We sent most of the skulls home with their creators, but a few stayed behind to grace our ofrenda. Mexicans believe that the souls of the dead come back & visit their loved ones during Dia de los Muertos, so the ofrenda is the offering to the deceased. The skulls joined a few photos of Marcia, candles (to help light the way for the spirits), a good bottle of red wine (things the person liked to eat/drink), a glass of water and a pile of salt (to quench the thirst of souls after their long trip back), pan de muerto (for nourishment), marigolds (which represent the passing nature of life), her Golden Bear necklace (favorite items the person liked to wear), and a Swedish dala horse in honor of her Swedish heritage. Lots of these items also symbolize the four elements of nature- wind, water, earth and fire, like the breezy papel picados that represent the wind.

UPDATE— I came across one DDLM-related saying today after I posted this that I’d not heard before but really liked. “Ya que el camino de regreso al mundo de los vivos no debe ser resbaladizo por las lágrimas.”  Translated, “The path back to the world of the living must not be made slippery by tears.” Great summary of the Mexican attitude towards celebrating the lives of those who have gone before us, rather than focusing on our sadness.

Our first ofrenda! My mom also helped me pick out the papel picados on the wall during our trip to Mercardo Jamaica in DF a few years back. I am amazed they are still (mostly) in one piece!

And a candlelit ofrenda view, including the pan de muerto I'd made the night before.

I had made vastly more sugar skulls then we ended up decorating (apparently not everyone has my perfectionist tendencies of needing multiple tries to hone my skull-decorating skills), so I whipped out a couple more after everyone left. One for my Grandma Arline, and one for John’s Uncle Brian.

The other family sugar skulls I made.

I debated for a while as to whether dogs deserved their own sugar skulls, but ultimately decided I had to draw the line somewhere. If our old beagle Roscoe and terrier Dave each got one, then what about Sophie the guinea pig? Or those fish we had for a while? The barn cats out at Grandma Dorothy’s farm?  There are limits, people.

As we cleaned up after the festivities on Sunday night, I gave John a big hug. “Thanks for being so supportive and not making me feel like a crazy person for wanting to do all of this,” I told him. “It’s just the kind of thing Marcia would have liked,” he replied, “Frenzied house-cleaning before having company over, friends, laughter, good food, red wine, and a project!” :)

It’s going to be a tough November 4th this year for me, my dad, and my brother, as well as for lots of her close friends & family. I just hope she knows how much we all miss her.

The Carmanns, all dressed up with somewhere to go. :)

Love you, Mom

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  1. Lesley says:

    Julie, I’m so sorry for the loss of your mom. I never got to meet her, but I knew she was a special lady, because she produced you! What a lovely tribute to her.

    You have inspired *me* to make sugar skulls from scratch. I’m taking a course in a few days at Esgamex here in DF. (But I will have the Internet in the back of my mind.)

    For your first altar, you really knocked this one out of the park.

  2. Julie says:

    Thanks Lesley! I appreciate the kind words. I can’t wait to see what else you learn this year! Keep me posted. :)

  3. Susie says:

    That was beautiful! Wiping away tears right now. What a cool way to honor your mom.

  4. Kathy Carmann says:

    Wiping tears away also. What a tribute and she would of loved it. Miss her and all the laughter and good times we shared.
    We love you.

  5. Karen Arzt says:

    My Dear Julie…what a wonderful honor of love you have given in your Mother’s memory. This past year I have remembered her often…shed some tears of love missing her in so many ways. Marcia’s friendship to me will be everlasting in my heart…and especially how her humor always made me laugh. I am so grateful to God that the Carmann Family has touched my life.

  6. Helen Tagge says:

    Julis first of all congratulations on expecting your first child your mom would have been so excited having a grandchild. We miss her very much. My mom was so close to your grandma Arline and when she passed your mom took over her spot and we all visited frequently. This tribute iw a wonderful way to honor you mom and she would loved to have been a part of this. We also have tears with the anniversary of her passing comes close. Thanks for sharing this tribute with all of us God bless all of you. Love Darold,Helen & Hildur

  7. Ana says:

    HI, as a Mexican living in the US it makes me feel very proud to see that some on my traditions are making other people happy also the fact that you found our tradition inspiring and reassuring, makes me feel very good. I lost my mom to cancer 3 years ago and every year since I have been making calaveritas for the Altar, this year one friend helped me to do 50! because I’m putting the altar at my school! it is crazy to do all that work even for a Mexican! but it really makes me feel good!, thanks so much for the post! and Thanks for adopting my tradition!

  8. claudia lopez says:

    I agree with Ana 100% so proud of my heritage I still have mom & dad but grandma is gone but not fortgoten

  9. ellecancun says:

    Very nice post. I am sorry for the loss of your mother…. I lost my stepmom last year to ALS, and I truly believe she knew/knows how much she is loved, and how much she is missed. Your Mom knows :)

    Very good job on the skulls!! I am not artistic at all, and wouldn’t dare try. Love the colours.

  10. Cristina says:

    Julie, what a really wonderful memorial for your Mom. Like many here, I had tears in my eyes when I finished reading it. Your skulls are beautiful and it’s wonderful to see you with the ‘bump’.

    Hasta pronto…

  11. I just stumbled upon your blog and this post brought me to tears. I’m sure your mom is smiling down at the celebration.

    Your sugar skulls are amazing! I’m very impressed. I really want to start celebrating “Dia de los Muertos” so my son can begin to understand what it is all about.

    Take care!

  12. L from Kansas says:

    I was googling sugar skulls for my first Dia de los Muertos celebration I’m hosting many friends in our barn tomorrow night. My mother died of ALS 19 years ago, and I was struck how the symbolism of the objects on the altar, the tearlessness, the fun for my kids, the time of year before the holidays may be just the thing I need to get through (again). The picture of your mom reminds me of mine. Bless our moms.

  13. Leslie Limon says:

    What a beautiful tribute to your mom! I had planned to build an altar for my grandmother, who passed away in December 2011, but with my suegra’s sudden passing in late September, we decided to wait until next year. The pain and loss is still too fresh for us all.

    I think it is so cool that you made your own sugar skulls. This is the first year in the twelve that I’ve lived here, that I’ve seen so many sugar skulls sold in our pueblito.

  14. Hello Julie,

    Very nice tribute to your mom. Thanks for this and for all the other posts.

    Best regards,


  15. Ronit says:

    Julie it was so nice to read your tribute to your mom. I still have tears in my eyes. I’m sure your mom was so proud of you! Having gotten the chance to get to know you personally I feel honored that I had a chance to know you while you were living here in Mexico City! I used to think that Dia de los Muetos was kind of creepy but now I realise what a beautiful celebration it is. Instead of mourning the loss of the people we love, we celebrate their life!

    I am so happy to hear you’re pregnant and are bringing more Julie’s into this world!
    Stay in touch.
    Un beso,
    p.s.Thanks so much for making me such a beautiful blog! You have changed my work forever! xoxo

  16. Christine says:

    Julie it is nice to see another crazy person. I lost my 21 year old daughter Ariel last April. Ariel had sugar skull tattoos, so this was my inspiration for her memorial. I hope you had the same sense of purpose that I experienced while creating sugar skulls. I think they would be very proud of us. I am planning on attending Days of the Dead in Mexico this year, any suggestions for locals near water.
    How are you holding up ? xo

  17. Angie Carlton says:

    Julie, I am way late to read this post, but I wanted to tell you how touched I was by this post. I commend you for having the strength to do an altar the first year after losing your mom. It has taken me 4 years to be able to do one for my father, whom I lost in 2008. Your tribute to your mom (and your kick a** sugar skulls, must try to copy next year) are an amazing Mexican-style celebration of life, not death. Please keep this blog going even if the posts are few and far between. I really enjoy reading it and wish you the best of luck in everything you do. Appreciate your humor more than you realize! Angie in DF

  18. […] The holiday took on a special meaning for me soon after we left Mexico, when my mom passed away on Nov 4, 2011. Her last trip abroad was to visit Mexico City during the Dia de los Muertos frenzy in 2009, so I’ve been setting up an ofrenda (altar) in her honor ever since. You can see the full process on my old Mexico blog @  http://www.midwesternerinmexico.com/2012/10/23/dia-de-los-muertos-homemade-sugar-skulls-an-ofrenda-f…. […]

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