Day of the Dead

Since I’ve been researching and raising monarchs, many people I’ve talked to have shared an amazing butterfly story with me. Most of them involve an almost mystical experience after the passing of a loved one that involved a butterfly—a monarch butterfly in particular. I get goosebumps listening to the stories, sometimes am moved to tears as I make connections with natural and spiritual phenomena.

Since ancient times, many cultures around the world have created myths and lore associating the butterfly with the human soul. We resonate to this beautiful insect that flutters by. The word for soul in Greek is psyche and this is the name Aristotle gave the butterfly. The Christians adopted the metamorphosis of the butterfly as a stirring symbol for the resurrection and marked November 2nd as All Soul’s Day, the day of prayer for the dead.

In Mexico, the Day of the Dead is a joyous festival with origins dating to the Aztec culture that dominated Mexico for centuries. They believed that monarch butterflies were the souls of the recently departed. Later, the colonialists moved the celebration for the dead to coincide with the Christian All Souls Day on November 2nd. Today, the Day of the Dead celebration is a major holiday in Mexico. The festivals throughout the country are festive, mystic, spiritual, and in some places, touristy. For some, the holiday is frivolous with music, dancing, and traditional sugar skeletons. For others, it is a time of reflection as they welcome the spirit of a beloved with offerings of flowers and favorite foods.

I’m most moved by the fact that this holiday coincides with the arrival of the migrating monarch in Mexico. Every fall, as the sunlight dissipates and the days grow shorter and the cold nips the air, monarchs migrate south to their overwintering sites, now sanctuaries high in the transvolcanic mountains of Michoacán. This single bug flies thousands of miles from as far away as Canada, joining millions of its kind to cluster in the oyamel fir trees. In the spring, when the light shines longer and warms the earth, the butterflies awaken and follow the blooming of their host plant, the milkweed, north.

Both science and faith elicit wonder and awe in our hearts and minds. Many myths are created in attempts to explain natural phenomena. When myth and nature collide, as they do on November 2nd in Mexico, we are compelled to reflect upon the power of nature to heal, to inspire, and to guide us.

All the people who have shared with me their story of seeing a monarch soon after the passing of a loved one believe they made a sacred connection with that relative. This moment is as profound and convincing to him or her as it is for any person in Mexico sitting at an ancestor’s grave who looks up and sees a cloud of a thousand monarchs passing and believes they are the souls of the departed. At such a moment we also feel a soul stirring connection to the vast cosmos, and to all souls in the great beyond. We are all one. We will never see a monarch butterfly again without remembering that connection.

On November 2nd welcome your memories of your relatives who have passed. Perhaps write a brief memoir, or paint a portrait, or tell a story about your relative to your child or grandchild. By sharing memories, we keep our passed loved ones alive.

And if you see a monarch passing through, all the better.


  1. This is a moving article. I too have seen a monarch migration and it is almost ethereal.

  2. What a beautiful post. I have always had an affinity with the Monarch and now that I know this I will be even more aware and mindful when I see one. A lovely time to celebrate those who have left my life. I'm off to light some candles and say a few prayers.


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Mary Alice