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Good Mourning - Celebrating the Day of the Dead with a Home Altar or Ofrenda

Updated on August 8, 2017
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Kitty has co-authored two books about the Day of the Dead and has organized numerous cultural tours to Oaxaca and Michoacan, Mexico.

A beautiful ofrenda in Oaxaca, Mexico
A beautiful ofrenda in Oaxaca, Mexico

In preparation for the Day of the Dead, family members in Mexico often work together to make the ofrenda. An ofrenda usually consists of a table that is placed in front of wooden frame or an arch made of sugar cane or bamboo, which is decorated with marigolds and a variety of fruits and vegetables. The marigold or zempascúchitl is the traditional flower of the Day of the Dead. The beautiful yellow and orange blossoms, with their pungent aroma, are believed to attract the souls, and so it is used lavishly on both ofrendas and the graves. Sometimes flower petals are spread in paths leading from the street to the doorways of the homes to help the spirits find their way.

Death is nature's way of saying, "Your table is ready."

— Robin Williams

History of the Celebration

Ultimately all things wither, fade, break apart and disappear. Every fall, the trees turn and eventually lose their leaves. Following the harvest, empty, barren fields stand as silent witnesses to the end of one cycle of life and the promise of the next cycle of planting and growth in the spring. More than any other season, autumn provides a poignant reminder that death is a natural part of life. So perhaps it is not surprising that harvest festivals, held during the fall of the year by ancient peoples worldwide, frequently incorporated a remembrance of the dead as well.

In what is today Mexico, the Aztecs participated in feasts dedicated to the dead every fall. According to early accounts, the festivities involved a profusion of flowers, feasting and dancing. Offerings to the ancestors accompanied these rituals as well. The souls of the dead were believed to return to visit the homes where they had resided. To properly welcome them, relatives offered a variety of foods including newly harvested corn and chiles, along with favorite dishes such as tamales, tortillas, quail or rabbit.

With the arrival of the Spanish and the introduction of Catholicism, different mourning rituals and concepts were introduced into Mexico. The Christian celebrations of All Saints’ and All Souls’ days (November 1st and 2nd, respectively) merged with the old harvest traditions. Although the indigenous beliefs have changed and evolved over time, the idea that the souls will return to earth for one day and the ritual of making offerings to them remain intact. The Days of the Dead, as celebrated today in Mexico, continues to reflect both thanksgiving for the abundance of life and a profound respect for the dead.

Preparing the Ofrenda

Preparations for the holiday involve cooking special foods and sweets, cleaning and decorating the graves in preparation for an all night cemetery vigil, creating special Days of the Dead artworks, and constructing a home altar or ofrenda in remembrance of the deceased.The table is covered with an attractive cloth. Photos of the deceased are placed on the ofrenda along with flowers and loaves of bread shaped like bones (called pan de muerto).

Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead) on an Ofrenda
Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead) on an Ofrenda

A traditional ofrenda will have items representing the elements of water, fire, earth, and wind. A glass of water is provided to quench the thirst of the souls who are expected to be thirsty after their long journey. Fire is represented by candles, and the earth by fruits and vegetables or other foods. Tissue paper banners of papel picado, or “punched paper,” flutter in the breeze either above or in front of the table, representing the wind. Often, a small dish of salt is added to purify the air.

Items the deceased enjoyed in life will be offered as well—a plate of tamales or perhaps chicken in mole, bottles of beer, tequila, soda or other favorite beverages. Personal items such as a wristwatch or pieces of jewelry that belonged to the person being honored are placed on the ofrenda.

Copal, a strong smelling plant resin, is burned in ceramic vessels. As with the marigolds, its distinctive scent is believed to attract the souls of the dead.

Skeleton and Skull Imagery

Amidst all the other items on the ofrenda, you will find sugar skulls, papier-maché skeletons, and more. Skulls and skeletons are featured prominently, and often irreverently, in Days of the Dead festivities. Largely because of this, the holiday is sometimes perceived as morbid or macabre by people from other cultures. But the inherent message in this imagery is that the friendship and love that was shared on earth is so strong it will transcend death.

While the specific elements mentioned here will be found on most ofrendas, there is a great deal of leeway for personal expression, too, making each ofrenda a testament to the creativity of its makers as well as a moving memorial to the deceased.

Cultural Aspects of the Day of the Dead

Death is hard. It hurts. No matter who you are or what country you’re from, it isn’t easy to say good-bye to people you love. But in traditional “American” culture, many of us have a particularly difficult time accepting death. We have trouble even talking about it. Our loved ones don’t “die,” instead we “lose” them. They “pass away, pass on,” or are “no longer with us.”

By contrast, in Mexico, it is considered better to joke about death than to fear it. Those leering skulls and skeletons with their clattering bones are simply expressions of the Mexican sense of humor and an honest appraisal of human mortality. The Days of the Dead is a party, hosted by the living, with the dead as celebrated guests of honor. The festivities invite us all to accept death, mock it, celebrate it, and partake of it. And why not? There’s certainly no escaping it.

Especially if someone close to you died recently, you might find comfort in embracing some of the traditions associated with the Days of the Dead, and in particular, the ofrenda.

When we create an ofrenda for someone who has died, it is our way of saying, “We miss you…we love you…we remember you. Come. Be with us again in spirit.”

“Your table is ready…”

© 2017 Kitty Williams Fisher


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