Friday, October 27, 2017

Day of the Dead #11: Creating an Altar - do it your way

My in progress altar.
Día de los Muertos is an ancient ceremony for honoring the dead. Over the centuries and the dispersal across villages, states and countries, it has been shaped by local customs. What I have found in my short time here in Mexico is incredible diversity around this holiday, from a stunningly beautiful but quietly reverent atmosphere to a noisy, carnival-like approach. 
Now that this celebration is creeping into western culture, enriching the candy and trick-or-treat holiday with a deeper meaning, perhaps we should give more thought to how we want to participate in the ritual.

As people are attracted to the Mexican celebration of the ancestors, one of the first things they think about is creating an altar. So far, so good. There are hundreds of articles about how to create a traditional, Mexican altar and some of my favorites will be listed below. I started to synthesize some of these into a step-by-step guide and then decided that wasn’t the right approach. Following a connect-the-dots guide might create a beautiful altar, but it could also be empty and meaningless.

If you are reading this, you’re probably feeling a tug toward recognizing your lost loved ones. You want to honor them in some way and creating an altar seems like one way to do it. And, that’s true. However, there are others. One friend on Facebook lost a son four years ago in October. She has been posting a fall picture every day and inviting friends to add their own colorful images to the collection. She has been open about her grief and her attempt to honor her son. Another friend created a Facebook tribute to the important people in her life, enumerating the gifts each of them gave her.
Whatever you decide to do, do it your way. Honor the gifts, but also honor the grief their passing has left with you. Typically, altars include pictures, flowers, candles, incense, food and drink for the ancestors. There are layers and layers of meanings that have been added over the years. What’s important is what these things mean to you and to the loved ones you are honoring.
Church in San Cristóbal de las Casas with papel picado

Perhaps, starting with a few questions might help:

  • What gifts did you receive from the person you are honoring?
  • How is your life different because you knew and loved, and were loved by, this person?
  • What did your ancestor love to do, to eat, or to drink?
  • What would show that person that you loved her or him?
  • What shared memory would make that person smile?
  • What story captures the essence of your loved one?

Regardless of your belief about death and life after death, honoring the people you’ve loved and whom have loved you, is a way of honoring yourself, a way of remembering that you were and are worthy of their love. In many ways, this celebration is not only about honoring your ancestors, it's about loving yourself and accepting the realities of life and death. Here in Mexico, the delicately cut paper decorations called papel picado are used to represent the fragile boundary between life and death.

One of the beliefs about Día de los Muertos is that the dead are allowed to return to Earth once a year. The altars and all the other preparations are to make sure the living are ready to receive them. Thus, the emphasis on food and drink that was preferred by the ancestor as well as candles, incense and aromatic flowers to guide the spirits back to their families.

According to Nicolás Medina Mora. "The altar serves as a kind of beacon to guide the souls of the dead to your house. The powerful scent of flowers and incense, the glow of the candles, and the brightly colored papel picado all act as a giant cross-dimensional welcome sign to ensure that your grandmother makes it safe to your living room." 
Enjoy this time to contemplate life and honor death.

How to Make a Day of the Dead Altar:
  1. A step-by-step, humorous and hip approach:
  2. A complete overview with meanings for many of the items:
  3. More about the art and beauty of altars: 

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