I always liked the concept of el Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, when Mexico and Central America honor family who has passed away. It’s no accident that the Catholic calendar celebrates All Saints Day the same time – November 1 – and that All Souls Day comes a day later on November 2, reflecting many cultures’ ancestral beliefs in the spirit world.
In Latin America, the deceased return to Earth on el Día de los Muertos and we humans welcome them back with gifts or ofrendas of food, drink, flowers and music, among other things. Families build beautiful altars to their loved ones to make the journey easier or more pleasant for those who have crossed the veil.
El Día de los Muertos has special significance for me this year. My oldest brother died of colon cancer just two months ago in August and it’s still a fresh wound. I think of him daily but I also worry about the day when I won’t think of him as much.
In the old days there would be a novena or nine days of prayer or rosarios. They were social gatherings, a time to bathe in the warmth of family and friends during a time of death. Back then women had the time to put on such activities and families lived closer together. Not anymore.
Here’s the thing about death, especially an unexpected one: In the end you are left with the why of it all. Why did my brother get such a rotten deal? Why did this have to happen? Why all the suffering and pain? But there are no answers or no easy answers.
I created my first altar to my brother this year. Not being Mexican or Central American, I wasn’t sure exactly how to do it; however, I knew it required:
Water to quench their thirst
Food, especially fruit and bread
Pictures and mementoes of the deceased
Flowers, especially marigolds
Papel picado, a paper decoration (which I made myself)
Building the altar drew me closer to my brother, thinking of the things he liked – he loved sweets so I placed a lollipop on the altar and I added a lava lamp as a reminder of the 60s, when he came of age. He would have thought it was cool. I chose a photo of my brother under a gorgeous weeping willow in my old home in Nevada. A rosary I bought in Japan hangs on the photo frame. The perfect finishing touch – a clock he gave me for my 25th wedding anniversary. Time is a thief.
Here’s a cool link from the Smithsonian Latino Center on Day of the Dead: http://latino.si.edu/dayofthedead/
˜˜ Maria Padilla, Editor