The making of this year’s altar for Dia de los Muertos was more than ever a labor of love. Yesterday on All Hallow’s Eve, I added photographs and personal items to the basic altar. My husband observed that I had been communing with a great many spirits while doing so, and that is true. I sit with this altar, taking comfort in my memories and the loving offerings I have made to the spirits. Living in Norte Californio, I am surrounded by the living customs of the Days of the Dead, and I feel my Irish ancestors and their veneration of Samhain which also goes back centuries. Both have deep roots in pre-Christian observances, and fulfill our desire to reach out to our loved ones who have moved beyond the veil.
We honor and send love to our dear cats who left us this year. A clay statue of Bast made by my daughter many years ago keeps watch over their spirits in the beyond.
The top tier of the ofrenda is watched over by the Lady of Guadalupe and a picture which shows more clearly than any words the interweaving of the living and the dead in the cycle of life. My silver Persian teacup holds a small bouquet of marigolds, the traditional flower for these altars.
The connection between death and weddings is longstanding. On the left is a traditional Muertos figure of a bride and groom from Mexico. In the center is a reproduction of a woodcut by the European Hans Holbein from the 16th century showing Death playing the drum for the New-Married Lady and her Groom. On the right is a matchbook nicho I made for a photo of my mom and dad on their wedding day.
Some photos of my grandparents: on the left, a favorite photo showing my mother and my father’s mother each holding my toddler hands as we walk away from the camera; I will join hands with them again someday. On the right, a photo of my father’s father just before he died; we appear to have been enjoying each other’s company. In the background, my mother’s mother, who died when she was very young. This grandmother, who I never knew, reaches out to me in dreams and imagination, for her blood runs in my veins and her Irish heritage makes itself felt in my life.
Building an altar like this is very healing. This year I lost both my own father and my father-in-law around the vernal equinox. Honoring them at this time of the year feels very necessary and right. I have had an extraordinary sense of closeness with my father since he passed. I found this expressed by the writer Mary Austin in her 1931 book Experiences Facing Death: “Why should one committed to the idea that death means simple extinction, experience, as we know he is as likely as ourselves to do, the sense expressed in saying, ‘My friend was never so near to me, we were never so completely reconciled’?” The relationship and love continue even after death, and we acknowledge our eventual reunion with them.