Why Do Mexicans Burn Copal? (Explained)

Mexicans have a deep-rooted tradition of burning copal that spans across centuries, a practice infused with symbolism and reverence.

Derived from the Nahuatl word ‘copalli’, which means incense, this aromatic resin is harvested from the copal tree.

Used in various rituals, copal is more than just the pleasant aroma it emits when burned; it serves as a conduit for spiritual communication, purifying spaces and connecting the material world with the divine.

This sacred practice is an integral part of Mexican cultural identity and is often seen during significant occasions, intertwining with elements of family and love.


The burning of copal holds a special place in Mexican traditions, particularly during celebrations like the Day of the Dead.

It is believed that the smoke from the burning copal carries the prayers of the people to the heavens, inviting ancestors to return and join their living relatives in celebration.

Copal is not only a symbol of Mexico’s spiritual past but also a living tradition that continues to signify the bond of kinship and community within Mexican families. The act of burning copal is a gesture of respect and love, emphasizing the importance of unity and remembrance.

Within the family context, the burning of copal is often a shared ritual, with members gathering to participate and reflect on their shared heritage.

The fragrance fills the home, creating a sense of warmth and comfort, which is synonymous with the embrace of loved ones. In essence, the use of copal is a testament to the timeless values that are held dear in Mexican culture: respect for ancestors, the importance of family, and the expression of deep-seated love through time-honored traditions.

Historical and Cultural Significance of Copal in Mexico

The burning of copal incense has been deeply rooted in Mexican culture for millennia, serving as a spiritual conduit to honor ancestors during important rituals and celebrations, such as the Day of the Dead.

Roots in Mesoamerican Traditions

Copal incense originates from indigenous Mesoamerican practices, notably among the Aztec and Maya civilizations. It is derived from the resin of trees found throughout Mexico and Central America. The natives used the fragrant smoke of copal for its purifying properties and believed it carried their prayers to the deities. In Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, the word for copal (copalli) refers to an offering, highlighting its role in sacred rituals.

Copal in Modern Mexican Celebrations

Today, copal remains a significant element in Mexican festivities, particularly during Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Families prepare ofrendas (altars) that often include copal as an essential offering to welcome the spirits of ancestors back to the world of the living. Its distinct aroma is synonymous with the celebration, permeating the streets of Mexico City and beyond during this vibrant festival.

UNESCO Recognition and Global Influence

In 2008, UNESCO designated Mexico’s Día de Los Muertos festivity as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This recognition underscores the global importance of the tradition and highlights the role of copal in these sacred customs. Copal’s use has extended past Mexico, becoming a cultural phenomenon in various parts of Latin America and serving as a bridge connecting modern-day celebrations with ancient traditions.

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Spiritual and Ritualistic Uses of Copal

In Mexican tradition, copal incense holds a significant place, revered for its ability to cleanse and sanctify spaces and connect the living with the spiritual world. Its fragrant smoke is integral to various ceremonies, marking its importance in spiritual and ritualistic practices.

Purifying Spaces and Altars

Copal resin is often used to purify spaces and altars before sacred rituals begin. The belief is that its holy smoke has the power to cleanse a place of evil spirits and negative energies. Before public and private ceremonies, it’s not uncommon to see families and spiritual leaders lighting copal incense, allowing the thick smoke to waft over the altar, enveloping religious icons and offerings in its protective embrace.

Connection with the Deceased

During occasions like Día de Muertos, the scent of burning copal serves as a physical representation of prayers ascending to the heavens. It is thought to help establish a connection with ancestral spirits, guiding them back to the world of the living to reunite with their families. By placing copal on the altar, alongside candles and offerings, Mexicans invite their dearly departed to partake in the remembrance and celebration of their lives.

Integration in Religious Practices

Copal is deeply woven into both pre-Hispanic traditions and contemporary Catholic rituals within Mexico. The sacred incense is often used during Mass and other religious observances as it is seen to carry both prayers upwards and create a divine ambiance conducive to worship. Its use spans across cultural and religious boundaries, being a unifying element in various forms of spiritual practice and a vehicle for both indigenous and Christian expressions of faith.

Copal as an Element of Mexican Festivities

In traditional Mexican culture, the burning of copal resonates deeply during the celebrations of Día de Los Muertos, a festival held on November 1 and November 2. This ritual is a homage to ancestors, steeped in a rich tapestry of symbols and offerings or ofrendas.

  • Ofrendas: Altars adorned with marigolds, pan de muerto (bread of the dead), sugar skulls, and photographs are incomplete without the sacred copal incense. This resin’s smoke is believed to carry prayers and is a sensory guide for the souls on their journey.
  • Festivals and Parades: During the vibrant parades, amidst vivacious costumes and floats, copal’s distinctive scent permeates the air, enhancing the spiritual ambiance.

The aromatic fragrance of copal unifies the tangible and intangible aspects of the Día de Los Muertos. It serves not only as an offering to the deceased but it is also thought to purify spaces and ward off evil spirits. The burning of copal is interwoven with elements such as:

  • Marigolds: These bright flowers create a path for the spirits.
  • Food and Bread: Special dishes and pan de muerto honor the departed.
  • Sugar Skulls: They symbolize death and rebirth.

Each of these components contributes to a holistic celebration of life and death, with copal providing a multisensory experience that reinforces the bridge between the living and the spiritual world.

Cultural and Personal Significance of Copal

In the tapestry of Mexican culture, copal resin holds profound significance resonating through family, tradition, and community, encapsulating sentiments of respect and reverence for life and the ancestors.

The symbolism of Copal in Mexican Life

Family and Community: Families in Mexico often use copal as a way to purify their homes and gatherings, signifying a clean slate for communal harmony. The fragrance of copal, especially during events like Día de los Muertos, acts as an aromatic thread that weaves through the fabric of Mexican society, stitching together moments of reflection, love, and respect.

Marigolds and Death: During Día de los Muertos, the burning of copal alongside marigolds symbolizes the transience of life and the connection between the living and the dead. It’s believed that the smoke from copal carries the prayers and wishes of the living to the ancestors who are honored during this time.

The Transgenerational Importance of Copal

Traditions Across Generations: The tradition of burning copal has been passed down through generations. It serves as a bridge connecting present-day Mexico with its ancient civilizations, such as the Aztecs, for whom copal had significant religious and ceremonial importance.

Respect and Love: The act of burning copal transcends the ceremonial and enters the personal realm, where it is an expression of love and respect for the ancestors. Mexicans often hold copal as a precious heirloom, a constant reminder of the enduring legacy of their families and communities.

Through these practices, the burning of copal remains a poignant testament to the deeply rooted values of family, traditions, and community within Mexican culture.

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