As a little child, setting the Altar de Muertos felt almost like putting up the Christmas tree. In Mexican culture, el Dia de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, reflects a fascinating and not-so-colloquial view on death. It portrays death as perfect and marvelous, as a spiritual transmutation worthy of celebration. It emphasizes that death is not only the ending of a person’s life, but also the ending of cycles, estates, and a rite of passage.
October sets the scene for the Day of the Dead in November. All the houses horridly decorated, the visceral legends told, and the choosing of hair-rising costumes for Halloween appeal to the morbidity of life. Halloween is all about fearing death, but that narrative seems to be terminated when the Day of the Dead starts. Combining the Christian tradition of All Saints’ Day and the indigenous custom to celebrate death, it is believed that during the Day of the Dead the doors of heaven open for the souls of the deceased to visit their loved ones for twenty-four hours. The streets are full of lights and laughs. Families congregate at night in cemeteries and surround the tombs to tell stories. This time however, the stories are not about vampires avidly searching for your carotid, but of the time Uncle Alonso decided to bring two huge stuffed animals on the plane just to give them to my sister and I, or the time he let us eat guacamole without silverware to anger my mom. These 24 hours are not about torment and pain, but ironically about vivacity portrayed in singing, dancing, and feasting.
According to the tradition, the dead endure an arduous journey back from the Land of the Dead to the Land of the Living. In order to welcome, honor, and refresh our loved ones, altars are beautifully set. This is no easy task, as it requires immense talents from cooking to decorating and painting. Every year, as the first of November approaches, the organized planning of the Altar de Muertos is crucial. In my family, each of us is assigned a specific job. For my little cousins, the path of the cempasuchil flower entertains them. With its bright color, the cempasuchil serves as a guide to the spirits. My grandma spreads salt all around the altar to protect our loved spirits from corruption in their passage through the realm of souls. My aunt, an amateur photographer, searches for the pictures of our dead. The process is meticulous as the pictures’ main purpose is to revive certain memories. Aunt Martha, the family artist, is in charge of the papel picado and the calaveras de azúcar (sugar skulls). These beautiful and festive decorations promote the celebratory nature and beauty of death. My mother, as a life-giver, places a cup of water on the altar, which symbolizes the origin of life.
The final step is my favorite as my sister Roberta and I have to find the favorite foods of the family that passed away and prepare them. Attention to detail is key, as the character of our loved ones can be easily reflected in their favorite foods. Strong-willed but kind, my grandpa’s favorite food was mole. While mildly spicy and fierce, mole has a sweetness to it which accurately depicts my grandpa’s character.
The food’s purpose goes beyond the characterization of the dead; it is also a tangible form of deep love. It feels like whoever is preparing your favorite food does so because she has taken the time to really get to know you. It is a sign of “I thought of you and wanted you to feel happiness.”Almost like when you come back to your college dorm after a failed midterm and your roommate, who paid enough attention to your favorite type of chocolate, bought you Ferrero Rocher to overpower the negative feelings with some endorphins. Similarly, just as my mom cooked my favorite chicken noodle soup whenever I had a stomach ache, on el Dia de Muertos, she cooks her sister’s favorite tortilla soup to commemorate her life. The message of food on the altar is strengthened by the idea that leaving the meals out throughout the night, will give the souls the opportunity to refuel and fill themselves with some delicious food that was cooked especially for them. Meanwhile, the family congregates around the altar awaiting their arrival with one cup of Mexican hot chocolate on one hand and a Pan de Muerto (sweet bread) on the other.
Showing our love and care, and in honor of those who died, the Day of the Dead brings my family together. We sing, we dance, we feast. We commemorate. Because no one is really dead until someone stops uttering their names.
Cover photo courtesy of The Spruce Eats