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Day of the Dead ofrendas: Gateways to the other world

By Jade Arroyo

Every culture has developed beliefs about death that determine a way of life and thinking. The notion of divinity and the cosmos is always paired with finding a meaning behind death. Among this diversity of visions, the way Mexicans celebrate the re-encounter with their deceased loved ones has shaped a cultural heritage and an identity. As Octavio Paz wrote in The Labyrinth of Solitude, “A civilization that denies Death, ends up denying Life.”

Since time immemorial, the cultures of Mexico have been surrounded by the sacred: miracle-making saints and pre-Hispanic legends and rituals fuse with fast and sometimes chaotic modern life. The cult of death is a key element of the idiosyncrasy of a country that tells its own story through myths. The Day of the Faithful Deceased is celebrated every November 2; the altar is one of its main manifestations, which is built around the image of the skull and is a tribute to one’s ancestors. Mexicans have been celebrating this for at least 3,000 years. It is believed that children’s souls come back on November 1 and the souls of adults on November 2. The souls are welcomed and guided to their relatives’ homes by these altars. The correct term for these beautiful homages is ofrendas, because they are made for ordinary people (altars are only for saints, and most of us are happy sinners).

Anatomy of the ofrenda and spiritual symbols

Levels. Ofrendas of seven levels are the most typical. Each level represents the stages that the soul must pass through before finally resting in peace.

Items on the ofrenda are arranged symbolically according to level. At the highest level is a picture of a saint or the Virgin (representing the spiritual world) and the main person whose is dedicated to. The level below is dedicated to the souls in purgatory. On the respective lower levels goes the salt, bread, food and, after the picture of the deceased loved people, finally, a representation of the earth, often seeds or corn shaped into a cross.

An altar can have just three levels (representing Heaven, Earth and the underworld). You can use a table as a base and boxes or small benches to create different levels. You can line the levels with a white cloth and purple, orange and black paper.

Flowers. Mainly cempaxuchitl (marigolds), nube (baby’s breath), and amaranto (cockscombs, which are believed to attract and guide the souls) are used. Flowers welcome the spirits and perfume and embellish the space. The white flowers represent heaven, yellow the Earth and purple mourning.

Candy skulls. Colorful sugar skulls usually have the name of the deceased written on the forehead, are eaten by family and friends when the ofrenda is taken down. If they are not eaten, you are supposed to break them after dismantling the ofrenda.

Copal. The smoke of copal incense symbolizes the passage from life to death and purifies the atmosphere.

Photos. A picture of the honored person is set at the highest part of the ofrenda.

Pan de muerto. Pan de muerto is baked and sold especially for Day of the Dead. This cakelike confection is usually baked in the shape of bones and skulls and sprinkled with sugar. It symbolizes the body and blood.

Cut-paper banners. As they blow in the breeze, these papel picado flags represent the wind and the joy of living.

Candles. As a representation of fire, candle flames symbolize the spirit’s ascension and light the soul’s journey. Four candles can be placed to make a cross and mark the four cardinal points.

Water. Water has many meanings, but the main one is to ease the spirit’s thirst. It symbolizes life and energy for the journey. It should be put in clear glasses.

Food. The food on the ofrenda, according to tradition, must be that most liked by the dead person. You commonly will see mole, pozole, tamales and fresh fruits.

Personal items. Things that used to belong to the deceased are placed on the ofrenda, such as glasses, a pipe, a book, and so on.

Ornaments. Mexican folk artists create an enormous range of pieces with themes of Day of the Dead that have been incorporated into ofrendas, such as catrina figures, skeletons made of several materials, alfeñiques (sugar figurines) and paper chains trimmed in purple (representing mourning) and yellow (representing life) that symbolize the thin line between life and death.

Spiritual image. A cross or a picture of a saint or the Virgin to whom the deceased was devoted is placed at the top of the ofrenda.

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