Halloween, a.k.a. “All Hallows Eve,” precedes the Day of the Dead celebrations held November 1st and 2nd – All Saints Day and All Souls Day in the Catholic tradition. In Mexico, Dia De Los Muertos as it is known in Spanish, honors deceased children and infants on the first day, and deceased adults on the second day.
You don’t have to be Mexican or Catholic to honor your loved ones with a Day of the Dead altar in your home and welcome their spirits for a visit. Here’s a quick overview of what you need to create an altar, or ofrenda in Spanish.
Start by setting up a table with photos of deceased loved ones, and their ashes if you have them. (Although the Church now frowns on keeping cremated remains around the house – see this blog post.) Don’t forget to include departed pets!
Traditional ofrendas have items that represent the four elements of earth, air, fire and water. A glass of water is included, to give the spirits a drink after their long journey. Tissue paper sheets with elaborate cutout designs, called papel picado, represent air, as they move with the gentlest breeze. Flowers and a bowl of salt often represent the earth, and candles provide fire.
Marigolds are the flower of choice for Day of the Dead decorating. Their pungent scent is said to guide souls to earth, and marigolds are often still blooming in late October. Flowers can be arranged in an arch, along with sheets of papel picado, representing the connection from earth to heaven.
Decorate around the photos with flowers and candles. Set out foods and beverages they used to enjoy. Play the music they loved. Put art objects they collected or artwork they created on or near the altar. Write messages to them and place the notes next to their photos. Include items from pets’ lives, such as toys, leashes, treats, and tags.
Create the altar prior to Halloween, and keep it up for as long as it feels right. Photograph the altar for posterity. Each year presents a new opportunity to remember and honor those who meant so much to us while they lived. Inevitably, there will be new faces to add as the years go by.