Día de los Muertos at Home: Create an Altar
Sweet: Her happy-go-lucky disposition, endearing awkwardness, and ability to make you feel like the most special person in the room.
Bitter: The gaping, empty space she has left behind.
2020 has been a collective experience in massive loss. There is the loss of “normal” life: getting together with friends, going to restaurants and movie theaters and sporting events, handshakes, hugs. The loss, for some, of businesses beloved or businesses owned. Of jobs and a sense of security. The loss of acres and acres of land, trees, homes, wildlife and humans to raging fires. There is the incomprehensible loss of life due to COVID-19—around the world, in the U.S., within Colorado and for some, in families. And there is the loss of loved ones whose time has come naturally.
It is said that on November 1 and 2 the veil between this world and the spirit world is thinnest. This is when the souls of our loved ones traverse the distance between worlds to visit us. The Mexican tradition of Día de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead—takes place on these days to observe loss by celebrating life. Bright colors, armloads of orange flowers, butterflies, rich foods and big festivals full of music, dance and unique, skeleton-based iconography mark this holiday.
At the heart of it all is the altar: the sacred space of honor dedicated to departed loved ones.
And while the big celebration and joyful coming together is important, so, too, is quiet remembrance and the placing of ofrendas (offerings) on the altar.
Particularly this year, observing Día by creating an altar may be a healing experience. You may even want to honor a place or a part of life prior to COVID-19 that you’re mourning.
To begin, find a flat surface and drape a cloth over it (Día is a joyful celebration, so it’s okay use something colorful). Place photos of your departed loved ones (or something that represents a place or experience) on it. Fill the altar with things they enjoyed in life—toys, jewelry, their favorite album, sports memorabilia. Whatever makes you think of them.
Next, add traditional elements to the altar. Papel picado are multi-colored tissue paper garlands that represent the fragility of life. Marigolds attract spirits back with their scent. Elaborately decorated sugar skulls and calaveras (skeletons) remind us that death is part of life, and to feel joy and happiness for the lives our loved ones lived, rather than dwell on the grief of their passing.
Finally, light candles to illuminate the spirits’ path and burn incense to help guide them. Place their favorite drink on the altar to quench their thirst after their journey. They’ll be hungry, too, so don’t forget their favorite food (traditional foods include pan de muerto, mole and tamales, but you can use whatever your loved ones enjoyed in life).
Whether you safely gather with others, join friends and family over Zoom, or are spending Día de los Muertos by yourself, take time to reflect on your love and loss. Share special memories, listen to their favorite music, sit in silent contemplation. Cry if it helps—but don’t be afraid to laugh. This is the balance between the bitter and the sweet.
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