Day of the Dead lives on at Kansas City Museum

The altar is being assembled with care by Jenny Mendez and Paul Gutièrrez at the Kansas City Museum for this weekend’s viewing. Photo by Abby Hoover

Like many events this year, the Kansas City Museum’s 7th Annual Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebration will look a little different. But no matter the circumstances, the meaning behind one of the most important Mexican holidays is unwavering.

“I think it’s important to just continue with the traditions that we have with everything still uncertain in this world right now,” Director of Programs & Events Paul Gutièrrez said. “People are looking for something normal that they’re accustomed to.”

El Día de los Muertos, although close to Halloween, is very different in meaning and tone. It is a time for families to welcome home the souls of their deceased relatives for a reunion that includes food, drink, and celebration.

The holiday, which has evolved into a blend of Mesoamerican ritual, European religion and Spanish culture, is celebrated each year from Oct. 31 through Nov. 2. While Oct. 31 is Halloween, Nov. 1 is el Dia de los Innocents, or the day of the children, and All Saints Day. Nov. 2 is All Souls Day, or el Día de los Muertos.

The museum’s Day of the Dead celebration will feature an altar viewing, one of the essential pieces to the holiday. This year the ofrenda, or altar, which will be set up on the west porte-cochère at Corinthian Hall, is dedicated to those who have lost their lives to COVID-19.

“Usually when you build an altar, the theme is to a loved one, someone who has passed,” Gutièrrez said. “This one would be for those who have lost their lives. It will be a general altar overall, no names, just a symbol of all the lives lost in the U.S. so far, which I think we’re at 210,000.”

The base of the altar is set up on the west porte-cochère at Corinthian Hall in a traditional style. Photo by Abby Hoover

The museum partnered with the Mattie Rhodes Art Center, TICO Productions, Crossroads Hotel and Hitched Planning and Floral, as well as a live mariachi band that will be playing while people visit the altar. When the mariachi aren’t playing, a church bell soundscape will set the mood.

The museum has planned a socially distanced altar viewing, which will be on Thursday, Oct. 15 and Friday, Oct. 16 from 6 to 9 p.m., and Saturday, Oct. 17 from 3 to 9 p.m. at 3218 Gladstone Blvd. Advance reservations are required for the free event to allow for safe distancing, and all three days are now at capacity.

“I thought it was really important to offer something. Even though it’s a safe distance and small, it’s more intimate and I think that might be the new way we’re doing programming, honestly, for a good while,” Gutièrrez said, adding that they are taking full advantage of digital programming.

Guests must wear a face covering, sanitize their hands upon entering and practice social distancing while viewing the altar. After contactless check-in, guests will enter and follow the path up to the altar, where they will have a few minutes to take in the different elements and honor loved ones who have passed. They will then exit, allowing enough space for the next reservation, and collect a Day of the Dead craft activity to create at home.

Usually, the organizers provide an opportunity for visitors to write a note to leave at the altar, but due to health precautions, Gutiérrez said people should bring a message they have prepared in advance or leave a photo or memento.

For those who do not have a reservation, Gutiérrez said everyone is welcome to walk or drive by when they are not open as long as they remain outside the fence. People were great about following the rules when the museum hosted small outdoor concerts over the summer, and Gutiérrez hopes the same for this event.

The altar will face Kessler Park, where the museum has hosted its Day of the Dead celebration in the past. Although the activities, food trucks and entertainment have been put on hold, Gutiérrez hopes next year the festivities will return better than ever. Now that the exterior renovations are complete at Corinthian Hall, the celebration will be brought inside the museum’s gates for future years.

“It’s grown a lot,” Gutiérrez said. “The first few we did, we only had a few hundred people show up. Last year we had a little under 5,000 show up on that Sunday afternoon where we activated Kessler Park.”

This year, Gutiérrez said the museum is focusing on providing something meaningful for the community to connect with in a safe way. He took inspiration from local groups and those celebrating the holiday in other countries. Jenny Mendez, the Director of Cultural Arts at the Mattie Rhodes Center, works with Gutiérrez to build the altar every year.

Depending on which state they are from or family traditions, Mexicans have specific ways to set up the altar. While in some regions the elements are on a flat surface, many have several levels. The museum’s altar will have many levels because it is being created on a set of stairs.

Marigolds are a traditional component of the Day of the Dead altar. Photo by Abby Hoover

Gutiérrez spent Wednesday painstakingly unwrapping and preparing 600 fresh marigolds, which are a key component to the altar. Their potent scent is thought to guide the spirits and invoke remembrance.

Candles are an essential part of the altar as the flames are said to guide the spirits back. On the museum’s altar, Our Lady of Guadalupe and crosses will also be included. Even in the elements of the altar, the blending of Mesoamerican traditions and Catholicism can be found.

Janet McGuire, lead docent and educator at the museum, spent her week creating dozens of large tissue paper flowers to border the walkway leading up to the altar.

The tissue paper flowers will line the path to the altar. Photo by Abby Hoover

Traditionally, the altar is a place to leave offerings for the deceased, oftentimes including favorite Mexican dishes and pan dulce, or sweet bread, salt to purify the spirits, water to quench their thirst, and sugar skulls to represent a departed soul.

For those interested in diving deeper into the traditions and significance of the Day of the Dead altars, Mendez will host a presentation on Wednesday, Oct. 21 from 6 to 7:30 on Facebook Live.

This presentation is part of the Restore KC program, and will provide an opportunity to understand how families are celebrating this rich and colorful tradition during these uncertain times. Three local families will share the altars for their loved ones and talk about the tradition and significance of creating and displaying altars, especially during the pandemic.

Many may have seen the skull-style face painting that normally pops up around Day of the Dead, but may not know the meaning behind it. Artist and educator Jessica Manco will host a virtual face painting demonstration on Saturday, Oct. 17, from 10 to 11 a.m. on Facebook Live.

Manco has participated in Kansas City’s Dia de los Muertos events for over 20 years. Manco attended Cooper Union in New York City and then earned her master’s degree in art at the Instituto Allende. Manco returned to Kansas City and was the Gallery and Art Education Curator at Mattie Rhodes Art Center before returning to the classroom at Van Horn High School.

The Restore KC program’s upcoming events can be found on the museum’s website,

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