Dying. Grief. They are subjects that many Scots file together with politics and religion as best avoided in polite conversation. "She won't want to have me dredge up her loss right now, in the middle of the supermarket," we might tell ourselves on meeting the recently bereaved. So the loss can go undiscussed, sheened over, ignored like a quiet figure in the corner of the room.

Fear of causing someone distress and a general discomfort about death contribute to this reticence. For Mayra Crowe, a Mexican living in Scotland, Scots' treatment of dying is quite different from what she is used to. Mexican Day Of The Dead - Dia De Los Muertos - is a festival that takes place each year from October 31 to November 2 and is a vibrant celebration of lost loved ones. Crowe, a Spanish lecturer at Dundee University, has lived in Scotland for years and lost her 15-year-old son Andrew very suddenly in October 2010 when he died of a brain haemorrhage. In the numb days that followed, Crowe felt truly uplifted by the love and support of her local community, but wished it could have lasted longer.

"A woman I know who had lost a son too said to me, 'Just now it's going to be a tsunami of people, but like the tsunami, they will go away.' I remember those words because they were very prescient. People just go. In Mexico, they will keep being supportive because at least once a year you can openly talk about your beloved who died."

Growing up, Crowe remembers having meals with her parents where the subject of death and dead loved ones would come up naturally in conversation. "I had a dear aunt and she died when I was eight. She was lovely and she died young, but we always talked about her at our table. My dad used to tell funny stories.

"My experience here was that it was very difficult when people would cross the road not to speak to me. I felt really bad when that happened. I would think, 'You don't need to say a word. If you want, just hug me; that would be fine.'"

Next week a new festival launches that aims to encourage Scots to feel more at ease addressing the subject of death. To Absent Friends, organised by the Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care (SPPC) and part of the work of the Good Life Good Death Good Grief alliance, will involve events of remembrance and celebration all over Scotland. It includes the Essence Of A Memory competition and exhibition, in conjunction with the Luminate Festival Of Creative Ageing, which features photographs and short captions encapsulating people's memories of loved ones who have passed away; the winning entries will be displayed at Marie Curie Hospice Glasgow from November 1 to 7.

The SPPC makes the point that being open about death can help individuals to plan, offer support and take control, increasing their chance of having a "good death".

It might seem a tough call to encourage open discussion of dying, but in reality, Scots' disconnection with death is a relatively recent phenomenon, according to Eddie Small, a lecturer in creative writing at Dundee University who is doing a PhD about the history of death and dying in Scotland. He believes it dates from the advent of the NHS 65 years ago; before that, death was up close in people's lives.

Up until the 1560s, funerals were managed by the Catholic Church but burials within church buildings with prayers by ministers for the dead were supposed to cease after the Scottish Reformation (when the Catholic tradition of praying for the dead was rejected). So for the next 300 years, families and groups of friends took greater control over the burial of their dead, though sometimes a minister was present and sometimes bodies were still laid to rest in Kirk yards.

Women typically washed down the body before it was taken to the burial site and everyone in a village would visit the home of the deceased and view the body.

In the Catholic and Episcopalian churches, the church funeral service came back into vogue in the 19th century, and then in the Church of Scotland after the First World War, for young men killed far from home.

But the founding of the NHS in 1948, Small believes, marked the moment when death started to cease being part of the tapestry of everyday life, because thereafter increasing numbers of people died in hospital. In 1949, 81 per cent of people died at home while the figure in 2009 was just 23 per cent. The first funeral parlour appeared in Scotland in 1937 and it quickly became the norm for funeral directors to remove bodies from home, or hospital, soon after death had occurred. "So we begin to have less contact with death," says Small. "Women coming to someone's home to wash bodies starts to peter out in the 1960s. Death becomes more mysterious and scary for some people." He believes that communities have effectively become disempowered from providing support to the dying or bereaved and sees To Absent Friends as a wonderful opportunity to get Scots talking about the end of life.

The festival is being held at the same time of year as the ancient Gaelic tradition of Samhain (pronounced "sow-win"). Today, Samhain is typically characterised as having been a Celtic festival around the time of the last harvest, when the veil between the worlds of the dead and the living was thought to be at its most permeable.

It has echoes of other festivals around the world that commemorate the dead and have been bound up together with the Christian festival of All Souls. Crowe explains that the Mexican Day Of The Dead, like Samhain, has its roots in pre-Colombian times. Under the Aztecs, goods and food were shared with the dead at the time of harvest; later, when Christian and Aztec beliefs merged, the pagan celebration was not suppressed but simply assimilated into the Christian calendar. Mexican Day Of The Dead makes great use of skeletons and skulls, which are symbols handed down from the Aztecs.

What is so striking about the festival to northern Europeans is how positive it is, in spite of the stark imagery. "I used to love the Day Of The Dead as a child," says Crowe. "You are brought up with death so you don't think of it as something you shouldn't talk about.

"For us as children, we are very familiar with getting a sugar-made skull on the Day Of The Dead with our name on it." She laughs. "I always tell my students, 'Please don't think if someone gives you a skull with your name on it, it means they think you're next.'

"You have to think about it as a party. The markets are so colourful at this time of year, they are full of flowers like marigolds."

If someone has loved ones buried in a local cemetery, they will visit, clean the stones and often take food and arrange for music to be played; mariachi bands are a common sight in Mexican cemeteries during the festivities. "What is cooked that day is whatever was the favourite food of our dead beloved ones, and their favourite drink and music," Crowe explains.

The day is also associated with distinctive smells, including bread of the dead (pan de muerto), a sweet pastry. "There's laughter," says Crowe. "There are tears as well because obviously you are remembering someone who has died."

And shrines are a key feature of the festival. Crowe did not put up a shrine to her deceased loved ones, but following Andrew's death, she now does. It features not only a photo of her son and his favourite food and drink, but also things he enjoyed such as his books and X-Box games.

Does Day Of The Dead make it easier to talk about death? Crowe knows of some Mexicans who still find it too distressing to discuss dead loved ones, but adds: "Personally I can say that it has helped me. More than celebrating death, on the Day Of The Dead we are celebrating life, that we have one life and have to enjoy it to the full."

Historically, those who observed the custom believed their dead loved ones were coming back to visit them on that day. Crowe is sceptical about how widespread this belief is in modern Mexico and she herself does not believe it in the traditional sense, but she says that Day Of The Dead still has a profound meaning for her. "They do come back to your home in the form of memories, in the talk that you have about them with friends and family. You are keeping the memory alive. We give ourselves that time to speak and remember. I see it now more and more, your life being so busy and running around - you forget to give yourself time to think and remember. That's what this celebration is all about." n