Día de los Muertos is here again. The traditional Mexican holiday is a special time where families decorate their altars and gather to remember the friends and loved ones that they’ve lost. But there aren’t rigid rules as to who gets to have an altar or not. In many ways, musicians, artists, actors, sports players, and cultural icons alike eventually become part of the family for some people.
Whether you grew up listening to cumbia during Saturday morning cleaning or enjoyed watching your favorite actors and players on television, artists permeate our lives and their work allows us to bond with them, sometimes in very personal ways. When those artists pass on the grief can be as powerful as coping with the loss of a relative or friend. We’ve compiled a list of artists and cultural movers who were widely beloved and left an enduring impact on fans who continue to commemorate their lives and contributions throughout the years.
We couldn’t start a list of beloved artists that have left us without our Tejana queen, Selena, who’s best known for revolutionizing the traditionally male-centered genre inspiring a new generation of Tejana singers and young women across the country. Her music deals with universally relatable themes, which has helped fans to connect and feel a closeness to the singer. After her sudden death in 1995, Selena’s funeral drew 60,000 mourners, many of whom flew in from around the world to say goodbye to the beloved singer. Her memory and impact continue to live on as celebrities dress up in her iconic purple bodysuit for Halloween. Fans, both young and older, still create altars in her memory to remember and honor her more than two decades since her passing.
There’s no denying that Juan Gabriel is an absolute cultural icon. “El Noa Noa,” which reverberated through airwaves for years after its release, continues to be one of his most popular songs —which can be said about most of his discography. First-gen folks might remember his voice blaring through speakers during Saturday morning cleaning while older listeners reminisce on the years gone by. On August 28, 2016, Juan Gabriel passed away from a heart attack. His legacy continues to thrive within Latine music scene and fans created this thoughtful altar, featuring a guitar and his headshots.
Whitney Houston is one of the most awarded and best-selling recording artists of all time. She’s sold over 200 million records worldwide and her voice has been dubbed both as “The Voice” and a national treasure. Her songs like “I Will Always Love You” and “Greatest Love of All” are classics that transcend generations, long after her passing. While her voice is what made her legendary, her mentorship and giving nature are what made her beloved. Despite her natural talent, Houston had a tumultuous personal life and passed away on February 11, 2012. Fans continue to resurface her best performances and interviews online and share the altars they’ve created in her memory.
K-pop star Kim Jong-hyun, known as Jonghyun, was the main vocalist of South Korean boy band SHINee and released 12 albums with the band in a span of nine years and was simultaneously a solo artist. A natural songwriter, Jonghyun’s talent became more apparent after he wrote a number of love ballads for SHINee and his solo work—something that used to be rare within K-pop at the time. The singer passed away on December 18, 2017, and his death prompted a nationwide conversation about the importance of destigmatizing mental health. Fans continue to commemorate his life, and a few in Mexico created this colorful altar for the K-pop star.
Another naturally gifted artist, Prince Rogers Nelson knew how to play 27 instruments and often produced, wrote, and composed all of his music. Prince is famously known for his androgynous persona, recognizable falsetto screams, and his experimentation with genres including funk, R&B, rock, new wave, soul, synth, pop, jazz, and more. Through his influence and lifestyle, Prince created a space where many marginalized communities were able to feel seen and represented through his boundary-breaking cultural impact. Prince passed away on April 21, 2016, but his music continues to touch and inspire young musicians around the world. His cult-like fan base continues to keep his memory alive, commemorating his notable career moments, birthdays, and even building Dia de Muertos altars for him.
With Aretha Franklin’s long list of cultural classics, such as “Respect,” “A Natural Woman,” and “Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” it’s no wonder her fans across the world still remember her dearly. With her skillful piano playing, incredibly sharp ear, musical intelligence, and powerful voice Franklin became a powerhouse within the R&B and soul. The singer was also an avid civil, indigenous, and women’s rights activist. She passed on August 16th, 2018 from pancreatic cancer. The city of Edinburgh built this community Dia de Muertos altar with tons of marigolds, papel picado, and headshots to honor her.
Kobe Bryant’s sudden death on January 26th, 2020 shook the nation, if not the world. The beloved LA Lakers shooting guard was a five-time NBA Championship winner and 18-time All-Star whose influence continues to inspire people beyond basketball players. Part of his allure was his ability to glide across the court and score an obscene amount of shots, dunks, and throws. Beyond being a highly decorated sports icon, he was also incredibly philanthropic. All of this and more is why Bryant was, and remains, a pop-culture icon whose career and sportsmanship continue to inspire young people across the nation. This altar was built by a school teacher who wanted to teach her students about this special holiday while also remembering Kobe Bryant’s life and career.