Massive sculptures and art pieces decorate Atlanta’s Historic Oakland Cemetery for the annual Día de Muertos festival on Oct. 5, 2023. (Photo by Delaney Tarr.)

The Atlanta Día de Muertos festival returned for its second year at the city’s Historic Oakland Cemetery for a free celebration of the Mexican holiday that honors the dead. The annual festival is hosted by the cemetery and organized by the Consulate General of Mexico in Atlanta and the Institute of Mexican Culture. 

Organizers estimated thousands turned out for music, vendors, face painting, a costume contest and several altars or ofrendas set up at the cemetery’s mausoleums. They called the event a “labor of love” that transformed the quiet cemetery. 

“I heard nothing but positive reviews from the thousands of people that came; it was really special and Oakland really came to life in such a magical way yesterday,” Richard Harker, executive director of the Historic Oakland Foundation, said. 

The celebration hasn’t always been at the cemetery, though. Carlos Herrera, the president of the Institute for Mexican Culture, said they’ve been doing the event for 20 years. Originally, they hosted it at the Atlanta History Center, but size limitations pushed them to change venues when the cemetery offered to open its doors. 

The new venue proved to fit the festival’s goal. It also drew in bigger, diverse crowds that expanded beyond the area’s Mexican and Mexican-American communities.  

“What we’re really interested in doing is creating spaces in which the community of Atlanta as a whole can come together,” Herrera said. “So they have an opportunity to listen to the same music, eat the same food and stand together next to each other and realize that we are Atlanta.” 

Altars or ofrendas at Historic Oakland Cemetery’s mausoleum’s honored different ancestors and deceased people, including famous musicians at the annual Día de Muertos festival on Oct. 5, 2023. 

The new venue was a natural fit for the festival. 

“This is a festival that is about remembering ancestors and celebrating life and celebrating the dead, and that’s something we do every single day at Oakland Cemetery,” Harker said.

Harker acknowledged the different culture around death in the United States and saw the cemetery as a way to make it all less scary. With over 125,000 visitors a year, the destination is “a place that people come to every day.” 

By making it a place for people to picnic, read a book or sit under a tree, Harker hopes Oakland can be a place to “interrogate the past” in and beyond Atlanta. He said that focus on wrestling with the past is “aligned with the Mexican idea of death.” 

At the festival, attendees were able to grapple with death through the various altars set up at the cemetery’s mausoleums. Prior to the event, people could apply to have an ofrenda for free, with an explanation of the theme or focus of the display. Harker called the colorful displays “breathtaking.” 

Institute President Herrera said that’s where people could learn the most about the Day of the Dead and its traditions. 

“It’s when they visit the altar more than anything else because the people who set them up typically tell the story of their altar,” Herrera said. 

The altars varied, with one dedicated to women who fought in the Mexican Revolution, one for deceased rock stars and several focused on fallen immigrants worldwide. Historical and educational altars stood alongside ones that honored lost family members, with their favorite foods, drinks and sentimental items on display. 

“I don’t think you could come to that event and walk away not having learned a whole lot and engaging in a sort of cross-cultural, multicultural dialogue,” Harker said.

While the organizers are already looking ahead to the festival’s legacy entwined with the cemetery a decade from now, Herrera hopes people can take away some key messages from Día de Muertos with this year’s festival. 

“We have to remember that we are the ancestors of tomorrow,” Herrera said. “We need to live in a way that ensures we are remembered with kindness.” 

See Kelly Jordan’s photos from the 2023 Dia de Muertos celebration at Oakland Cemetery.

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