We Remember the Dead:
The Altars of Dia de los Muertos
Annabel García Torres
The graveyard is packed with the sound of ghostly children’s voices mixed with faint songs and the humming of prayers being said. It’s November first and Day of the Dead has just begun in this small cemetery. We could be located in Mexico, Guatemala or maybe we’re in Peru.
There are so many candles lit it seems more like noon than midnight. The air is a mix of coffee, tamales and mole. Searching through different graves you’re trying to meet up with your family. Suddenly all the smells wind down to just one, your favorite sweet, food or maybe it’s a strong drink. All of a sudden you’re running, all you can see is a row of flowers and there is your mother, a little older but there she is. Finally you make it to your grave.
Your mom has made you your favorite foods, you breathe in deeply and it fills you up. You haven’t been hungry in ages but with each breath you can remember each spice or even a great conversation had while this was being made.
This is what the end of the journey is for a spirit on Day of the Dead. On October 31st through November 2nd spirits can move through the thin veils between worlds. Spirits can come to see their old world one more time.
Altars are the main event for all Day of the Dead celebrations and every altar has four elements represented by objects that coax our family’s souls back to us. We wouldn’t want grandpa going to visit some other family!
This is why it is essential to begin to put the altar together in advance. Slowly families collect offerings for their passed family member’s long journey.
In some regions altars are assembled at the beginning of October, this gives the family enough time to gather all the materials needed. Other regions and especially in Mexico the altar must be set up on October 31st at noon.
November first is completely dedicated to children who have passed away. Tables would be full of candy some toys and even a piñata would be broken at the cemetery.
All four elements are represented the same way for both children and adults. Earth is represented by the food or drinks set on the altar. These are items we only need on this plane. And on our altar at home there is a pile of dirt under the table. This helps ground the soul for their time spent here.
Incense is used for wind but its not just any old incense you can buy at a hippie story. The incense is called Copal and should be burnt on hot coals. Copal is meant to smell like burning bodies. It represents the ash our bodies will all become. The Copal is burned with Rosemary or Chamomile to help strengthen the aroma.
Wind is also represented by papel picado, this is tissue paper that has designs cut out and is used as decorations for many Mexican events. The wind travels through the papers shapes like our bodies travel through worlds.
Two types of candles represent fire, one is a candlestick and the other is a candle in a candleholder. There is a difference between the two of them because of religion.
Catholics or Christians are given a candlestick at their baptism and this is the candlestick that will guide them for eternity. Setting candlesticks on an altar represent the everlasting life of a spirit.
Salt is placed on one side of the table to represent the body’s purification and must be on the table to help balance the soul. Sugar is placed on the opposite side of the table to represent the sweetness of someone’s life.
Cempazúchil (Som-pah-su-chil) or Marigolds are used as fire as well. These flowers illuminate the path from your door to the altar or around the plot of a person’s grave. Flowers can be spread on the ground or they can be put into vases that line all the way to your altar.
This is one of the most important aspects of an altar. It is necessary to have Marigold guiding a soul to their grave. Water is placed on the table as well because a spirit will be thirsty. It is important to understand that spirits cannot eat our offerings.
People who celebrate The Day of the Dead understand this fully. It is important for a spirit to come and feel the essences and love in which the offerings were prepared. So lets go back to your grave with all the people you hold dear.
November first is in full swing and we’re back to enjoying the essence of the offerings our family has laid out. We are taught from childhood that heaven will be colorful and vibrant, full of friends and family. So you look around and you’re not the only one who has come traveling. Maybe your journey was to walk through many planes with your aunt, grandmother or a great-grandfather.
It is customary for towns throughout all of Latin American to have all families members buried in one graveyard or between a few plots. Bodies laid to rest one on top of the other. On one gravestone it may read three or four names. This may seem odd but quite amazing when you can see seven or more generations of your family in one space.
You stand alongside seven generations of Smiths, Johnsons or maybe William children. Piñatas have been broken and all the candies have been given out to local beggars. Families head to their homes to rest before another day of visitors.
November second is for all adults; the altar should go unchanged for these two days. The only major difference is personal items set on the altar or on the grave. So lets say you did not travel back on November first but instead on November second.
After a long life lived you have traveled back to see your children and grandchildren sitting by your grave. Hopefully your death happened quietly maybe while someone went to refill your tea and then BAM you’re gone. Nothing too Hollywood maybe you were just sitting in a really expensive leather chair you purchased because this day would come.
However sweet your death was, American culture would not dwell on the fact that when you were 22 years old you couldn’t afford a leather belt and you ended up dying in a leather chair. In Mexican culture, that simple fact would be told generation to generation.
And on Day of the Dead you’re altar will have little leather wallets, or a replica of you’re chair. This minor detail in life would guide you back to the people who have turned your life in to a legendary tail.
Day of the Dead is constantly referred to as a celebration when it really is a day of remembrance, like Memorial Day. Those who have lost family don’t necessarily celebrate Memorial Day but they do something special for their loved one. The same is done in Latino and indigenous cultures.
Tales are spun in to a web of truths and myths about your life. You are remembered as the under dog who made it big or maybe the town drunk who always gave a good laugh. Yes, tequila will be drunk as well as coffee. But not the regular coffee to keep you up for hours, it is called, café con piquete, coffee with an injection.
This coffee is made slightly different depending on the region specifically in Mexico. It is only used for Day of the Dead or at the wake and funeral of someone. Not every Mexican family does this but on Day of the Dead, they do. The coffee is a mix of water, cinnamon, piloncillo or brown sugar and regular sugar. Then topped off with coffee and a little spike of tequila or mescal.
The ingredient’s are added through a process and are enjoyed throughout November second. It goes excellently with pan de muerto, bread of the dead. This bread is required to be on the altar and in some cultures that have derived from Aztecs it represents the heart and in other indigenous cultures the bread represents the skull.
Some say the four points on the bread represent bones, others say the four points are the four natural elements of earth, wind, fire and water. Each culture has a different variation. This bread is left as an offering and at the end of November second is consumed by the families keeping vigil over graves.
On All Saints day there is one layer to the altar. It is believed that a soul of a child goes to heaven automatically. This is a cultural belief not based in religion. However adults have room and time for some good ole fashion sin.
So we create altars of different sizes to help reach our loved ones. Some are only two layers, which represent heaven and earth. This helps the connection with the after life and is important so that our altar is more accessible for our loved ones.
Now for those of us sinners there is more of a journey. This altar would have three layers representing heaven, earth and the inframundo. The inframundo is what we would call the nether world. This is the place in Aztec and other indigenous culture is a place where you are on a path to heaven. In Christian denominations this would be a considered a judgment period.
For indigenous cultures the time spent in the inframundo is a time to be tested. You are given a guide named Xolotl , this god that looks like a skeleton helps you travel through the tests until you end up in front of Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of the dead.
In all human life there is a process to being born and that is a nine-month development in the womb. And like in birth indigenous cultures believe there is a process in death. There are eight to nine levels in which Xolotl must guide a soul. These are trails in which the soul must prove them worthy of resting. According to Aztec text, some test includes climbing a mountain or sword fighting. However, we will not know until we get there.
Once your tests are complete you can now rest eternally with the rest of your family. Mictecacihuatl and her husband Mictlantecuhtli watch over the dead. They rule the afterlife together, guiding new souls to their loved ones and keeping up with festivities.
In Mayan culture the god of the dead is Xibalba, in the ancient text of Mayans Xibalba is two gods but in reality these two gods are just one. However, there is only one Mayan text, the Popol Voh. In Mayan culture like in Aztec culture you’re tested before resting.
Then there are altars that are seven layers, these are by the Otomí people. They believed that these layers represent the seven deadly sins a human could commit.
But you did not commit any grave sins so your altar only has three layers because you died with in this year and you’re still being tested in the inframundo. Through your test you realize that the people you’ve seen on your journey have gone down to fewer and fewer people.
And when you travel back to earth on November second you do not see these other souls alongside you. Their graves are empty, no flowers, no candles, nothing. They have moved on to a different plane. The plane of the forgotten, there souls dwell until no one remembers them at all. Then their soul simply disappears like they never existed.
It feels sad to know that now your grandchildren have a wonderful story about your triumph from no leather wallet to a leather chair and you great-grandchildren will hear the same story. And on and on, so every year you will see new children born into your family. You will see your family grow both on Earth and in the underworld. Love is reproduced over and over. But the forgotten, even after enough time you forget them too.
Annabel García Torres is a writer and poet living in Chicago. She works as an English Adult Facilitator for Universidad Popular and a Youth Mentor for the Youth Employment Program.