“To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.” Thomas Campbell
In Mexico, they believe that the dead are allowed to return to earth once a year on the Day of the Dead. A bit of history: the Spaniards invaded Mexico in the 16th century and forced Mexicans to become Catholics. The indigenous people of Mexico “converted” but retained many traditional beliefs, resulting in the Day of the Dead. The belief goes something like this: Deceased loved ones can visit the living once a year but the path from the netherworld to the land of the living is a hazardous road. The scent of incense and flowers, the light of candles and brightly colored papel picado make it easy for loved ones to find their way back home. Altars are created to receive the dead, they serve as a communal feast table. When the dead arrive, their favorite foods are waiting for them. There are some things that are “traditionally” included in every altar but it should be personalized to honor and reflect the personality of the dead. An altar can be created for anyone: deceased family member, celebrity, historical figure, etc.
A traditional altar includes a table with three levels to represent the Underworld, Earth and Heaven. The bottom level of the altar symbolizes the Underworld and sometimes contains gravestones, a mat for the dead to wipe their feet, and ashes in the shape of a cross. The middle level represents the earth and this is where worldly offerings such as food, water, salt and candles are set up. The upper level represents heaven and contains incense (most likely copal tree resin), a crucifix, a photo of a saint (you know, because of the Catholic colonialism) and a photo of your loved one. Other altar items include offerings (ofrendas): Marigolds (the flowers of a thousand petals that symbolize death and help guide the dead back to earth); oranges in place of the traditional tejocotes (an apple/pear fruit, native to Mexico) to symbolize the earth’s bounty and something for the honored dead to eat on their journey to the next world; papel picado to symbolize the wind placed around the edges of the altar or behind it; foods that the honored dead liked to eat; Alfeñique – the animals made of sugar; pan de muerto (traditional Mexican sweet bread); bean tamales to symbolize fertility; xoloescuintle – a dog like creature that is believed to help spirits cross the river into the next world; a glass of water in case the honored dead is thirsty; salt in a small bowl to represent the continuance of life; candles to light their way. Some people set up a bottle of liquor as well. Finally set up a photo of the honored dead so that it is clear that they are invited to enter your home.
You don’t have to embrace the Day of the Dead to build an altar. You don’t need to believe that the spirit of the dead will actually visit you (and require refreshments). You don’t even need to believe that there’s an Afterlife. A Dia de los Muertos altar is a shrine to your loved one which is common in households around the world, regardless of religious beliefs or belief in an Afterworld. It is a way of remembering and honoring the dead. It is also a therapeutic process for coping with death. Go make grandma an altar!