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Altering Altars

SMA: Faith Is Culture

By Joseph Toone

On Day of the Dead, altars for various celebrities, local and international, will surround the Jardín and Parque Juárez. Cemeteries will feature altars for folks with a more personal connection. I highly encourage you to construct your own altar for loved ones you would enjoy inviting back, if only for the evening, and way, way far away from wherever they are buried.

In western cultures, when a loved one dies, friends are often sympathetic and question the manner of death so that the attention is focused on the demise rather than the totality of the loved one’s life. At best, most transitions are messy, and the most recent death is not a pleasant spot to focus on.

An altar, in addition to inviting the deceased back to visit with the lure of food and earthly delights, is a cathartic way to focus on all aspects of the person’s life—the beginnings, joys, interests, and hobbies that made him or her the person you love. Though it may take some minor detours from the historically Mexican purpose of each altar’s level, there is no harm and great joy in customizing your efforts to your needs.

For me, it was building an altar for my parents. The first level of the altar focused on their beginnings. For Mom, the beginning was a central Pennsylvania mountain town known only for the stench of Hades’ sulfur from the lumber mill that produced The Saturday Evening Post in its Norman Rockwell heyday. For Dad, born on the kitchen table of a five-story walk-up in Harlem, I used photos of the Harlem Renaissance.

Next came the level of what they enjoyed. For Mom’s baby-loving fascination, that was easy— any image of “Kate and Jake Plus Eight” taken before the divorce sufficed. My father preferred images of a drunken and disheveled Angie Dickinson during those 1970s comedy roasts. To each his own.

The food level was easy peasy. Dad adored a burger, while my mother adored anything she didn’t cook herself. A bottle of champagne for Mom gave her the home court advantage over my teetotaler father.

Physical things they enjoyed were easy to place. There is the gravy bowl from my mother’s favorite china set (that she would be aghast to learn I use as a pen holder in my office). For Dad, the marbles he won as a kid in New York City were placed in his favorite candy bowl.

Of course, I included the mandatory paper flags (symbolizing the thin line between life and death) and salt (for purification), but yellow gladiolas, my father’s favorite flowers, replaced the fragrant allure of locally grown marigolds.

My point is that to see a loved one’s life from the get-go, represented with love and not focused on the ending, is uplifting and immensely satisfying. Light the candles and invite them back for a visit. I promise you will feel better, and often surprised, in ways you could never have anticipated.

As the number-one rated local tour guide on culture by TripAdvisor, I provide tours on Thursdays and Fridays at 9am from the Oratorio Church. To learn more about faith and culture in San Miguel, visit, which benefits children’s library and art programs.


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