Altars~ Household and Community~ for Day of the Dead Holidays

This is a good way to recap the weekend~ through altars and exhibits.  This art is from Oakland muralist-artist Joaquin Alejandro Newman,  who had a booth at Noche de Los Muertos on Thurs.  It’s the newest addition to our home alter this year.

Is she the Sunmaid Raisin girl, or a visitor to the altar- happy to receive abundant gifts, food, and drink?  😉

It was the Day of the Dead altar or ofrenda, that first got me hooked on observing Dia de Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead holidays.  An altar can serve many roles, and perhaps this, the ofrenda, is one thing that makes the holiday confusing or strange to those unfamiliar with the traditions;  in Judeo/Christian traditions, alters are for elevating and placing things you worship- gods and saints perhaps. But traditional Day of the Dead alters are both for creating a space for remembrance, and places of welcome for visiting spirits to come enjoy their favorite food, drink, and gifts- all when the ‘veil between the worlds is thin’.  I like reading the histories of the first Spanish accounts of the rituals; the Aztecs “mocking death” in dances and rituals led them to think the practices odd and barbaric. But the days were kept, folded into another Catholic holy day- All Souls day.

Source with a great key to the purpose of all items placed on an altar.

It was in college where I first discovered the holiday.  About mid-October my first year, roommates set up an altar in the living room telling all of us to feel free to place our own mementos to loved ones passed.  I had had a close friend die that summer, and had a lot of sadness around not being able to say good bye, etc., but I passed on participating, at first.   One roommate pulled me aside;  “You have some baggage around the death of your friend; it would be good to lay that on the altar.”  He suggested that I write what I didn’t get to say to my friend before he died- in a letter. “Leave it there, with his picture, next to his favorite beer- in case he comes visiting when you’re not home.  Then later, on Nov. 2, sit alone and read your words aloud to him.”

Doing this was complete cartharsis.  It gave me the release I needed.  Seeing things this way, completely spiritually was different at the time, but it got rid of my guilt in a day. I could finally move on.  I added his favorite beer nuts and climbing carabiners so I hope he was happy too.

Photo source:    (also tutorial for making papel picado).

The beauty of building an altar this time of year- is that you can make it whatever you want it to be:  a place for memories and remembrance; a space to quietly help heal and provide closure (my example above); a safe place to make light of any fears of or about death.  You can make it a hybrid- of old and new- with images of inspiring lives or statues that you believe guide spirits, whatever your beliefs, through obstacles.  It can be modest with symbols of the 4 elements:  candles (fire), salt (earth), a glass of water, and incense or copal (air). More resources to help you decorate your alter are here.

I’ve built home altars for some 20 years now, keeping them up for a month, until mid-November.  My personal alter this year honors my grandparents. It also makes light of all that I take so seriously now- so there are many musical calaveras on the altar, always.   I love how a visitor to my blog, Maureen so beautifully put it in her comment to my last post– about what her alter means to her:

“It was probably the calavera figures seen on one of my first trips to Mexico that caught my fancy. I loved how they remind us that death is really our constant companion, even as we go about our day-to-day life. Lively and meaningful ofrendas brought back real memories: her Pall Mall cigarettes, his favorite song played over and over… And the beautifully artistic altars whose symbols inspire further imaginings of life and death. Dia de los Muertos provides us the perfect opportunity to connect and remember in a loving way, with joy as well as the tears. It’s wonderful how it’s become part of my annual observance…”

This is the reason I keep little skeletons hidden all over the house; playful reminders of impermanence, and for me to make the most of life, now.

Community altars are the other amazing wonder of Day of the Dead holidays.  Community ofrendas and art exhibits held in most large cities museums, galleries and art walks this time of year, are powerful showing everything from shrines built by children to large installations by professional artists, sculptors, and painters.  And there is nothing like working out your grief as a community, be it local losses, or national- like lives lost in war.  I can never forget the alters of September 11th made by artists and children in galleries and warehouses throughout the City of Sacramento 10 years ago.  They really did provide solace, as I’m sure community alters in cities across the country did during this time.

Right now, the Oakland Art Museum’s exhibit is dedicated to all of the people and cultures who made California what it is today.  There are memorials to grandfathers, and Oakland’s youth,

and one dedicated to Filipino culture, and lore in the after life.