Tucson's All Souls Procession: a Walk to Remember

From a small parade along a downtown street to a large-scale procession comprised of and participated in by thousands, Tucson's All Soul's Procession is an emotional spectacle to be seen and heard.

All Souls Procession, Tucson
All Souls Procession, Tucson

It's no coincidence Tucson's annual All Souls Procession begins and concludes downtown—it's the spiritual center of the city known affectionately as the "Old Pueblo."

Every year, on the first Sunday of November, hundreds of thousands of mourners unite for this grassroots gathering to honor those who have passed. This year—the procession's 30th anniversary—is likely to draw even larger crowds.

What is the All Soul's Procession?

Part theater, part art exhibition and part parade, the all-inclusive procession celebrates the universal experience of death. It's a creative revelry of remembrance inspired by the Mexican holiday Dia de Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

While iconic calaveras, or sugar skulls, are part of the All Souls Procession imagery, the event conjures a spirit of its own. Performers and artists collaborate months in advance to design unique performances and installations for the procession that feature stilt walkers, art and photo installations, elaborate floats, brightly colored masks and towering papier mâché puppets.

Anyone is welcome to participate and join the moving procession, emphasizing the community aspect, and many come carrying photos of their loved ones or pulling handmade portable altars and shrines.

"It's what people have made it," says Paul Weir, technical director of the All Souls Procession and board member of Many Mouths of One Stomach, a nonprofit art collective that coordinates the event. "We don't tell people what to be."

Which means this volunteer-led event can be anything and everything, a powerful remembrance of loss in all its forms. Groups of veterans memorializing fallen members of their combat units, grandmothers with photos of their departed pets and University of Arizona scientists grieving Pluto's former status in the solar system—all walk side by side to mourn their loss, according to Weir.

"It's the sacred and the profane and they march together," he says of the inclusive atmosphere that allows citizens from all walks of life, regardless of creed, color or traditions, to pay tribute to those people—and things—who have died. The public funeral is as artistic as it is diverse.

"It's literally an 'all souls' event. It's a festival of compassion that touches so many points of the community."

Paul Weir

The Origin of the All Souls Procession

The first procession in Tucson was held in 1990 and organized by local artist Susan Johnson, who created a performance piece to honor her deceased father. At the time, her intimate cortège drew around 30 people, but today the All Souls Procession is considered one of the largest public spectacles of its kind with 150,000 participants who either walk in or watch, the slow-moving mass of mourners.

A series of activities leads up to the procession, including the Ancestors Project, a collection of photos from around the world that are featured in a pre-event exhibit and then displayed along the route via high-power video projectors. This year's theme is "In the Realm," inspired by the work of Steve Roach, ambient and electronic musician, who also is the featured musical guest.

How to Participate

The All Souls Procession Weekend kicks off with a three-day music fest, a children's walk, the Procession of Little Angels on Saturday, and the All Souls Procession Grand Finale on Sunday. The 1.5-mile walk is led by a giant steel urn that contains letters and notes to the dead, names and photos of departed loved ones, as well as public well-wishes and prayers for the deceased. It culminates with a ceremonial lighting and raising of the urn, which marks the end of the procession.

If You Go

Night of the Living Fest
When: Friday, Nov. 1, from 4 p.m. to Sunday, Nov. 3, at 11 p.m.
Where: MSA Annex, 267 Avenida Del Convento
Cost: $20-50

Procession of Little Angels
When: Saturday, Nov. 2, from 3 - 7 p.m.
Where: Armory Park, 221 S. 6th Ave.
Cost: Free

All Souls Procession Grand Finale
When: Sunday, Nov. 3, from 4 - 10 p.m.
Where: Route begins on Grande Ave, west of Interstate 10 (detailed route map).
Cost: Free

About the Author

Sally J. Clasen

Sally Clasen is a Phoenix-based writer who thrives on coffee, world-class sunsets and meeting colorful characters along the travel path. Her work appears in local and regional publications celebrating Arizona and southwest living.