For my beautiful grandmother, Jane Elizabeth Wiersema
Feb. 11, 1917-May 6, 2013

I am not religious, but have been exposed to many different ceremonies and traditions from many different cultures. There are aspects to many of these that I appreciate and enjoy, and so I have adopted my own various traditions and ceremony that I do at home. One of my favorite traditions is Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. This is a beautiful holiday that honors those that have passed on from this life, and celebrates who they were and still are. It acknowledges that death is a part of life, and not something to fear, but to celebrate as a new journey. Our local museum has a wonderful display and celebration of Dia de Los Muertos that is always fun to attend. One of the main traditions of this holiday that we do every year, is to create an altar for a loved one/s. This year, we dedicated our altar to our grandmother, who passed away in May.

Altars can be made in various ways, and are really just a way to pay tribute to who a person was in this life, and to honor their passage on to a different place, with love. In Mexico, very large altars are built for loved ones on the days leading up to Nov. 1, and  on Nov. 1 and 2, processions are held leading to the graveyards where flowers are placed over the graves and a feast is held to honor the spirits and family members that have passed. Typically, November 1 is the day that infants and children are honored, and November 2 is the day that adults are remembered and honored. There are also several elements that tend to be common in the altars, and can be a good way to start building your own.

Most traditional Day of the Dead altars have several levels. The top level usually contains photos of the loved one, and also represents the spirit.  The top level of our altar contains various photos of our grandmother and our family, as well as a cross representing the four elements, earth, air, wind, and fire. It also is important for this level to have a candle to light for the one being remembered/honored. When we were building this, we had so much fun going through pictures and remembering good times:)

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The lower level of the altar usually has various items the loved one enjoyed during their life, and represents the physical. On one side of our altar we placed some of our grandmother’s jewelry and personal items, as well as soap, water, and a mirror, traditional items that are placed for the spirits to refresh and clean themselves after their long journey.


On the other side of our altar, we placed a deck of cards, as our grandmother enjoyed playing cards with her friends and with us (I always beat her at speed, but she said she still enjoyed playing and it was good for her arthritis:) She also enjoyed bourbon with soda and bitters, as well as Fannie May chocolate, which is hard to find here in Colorado, so I had to substitute;) Salt is also a traditional part of the altar, and serves to purify spirits. We used a bowl of salty nuts, to serve both as salt for grandma’s spirit, and also a nice snack to have with her bourbon bitter:) A traditional incense made of tree resin, called Copal, is also burned in order to cleanse the altar of negative energy and spirits, and attract the good. We used a natural pine tree scented incense, as our grandmother liked the smell of fresh pine. We also blessed the altar with a sage burning and prayer.


Some other elements we placed on the altar are a snowman and tree that were my grandmothers, as well as a pumpkin candy dispenser, as she always loved decorating for the holidays, and always gave out candy on Halloween.


We placed the grandmother storyteller skeleton on the altar to honor the fact that our grandmother was the one in the family that remembered all the names and stories of all our various family members. She kept track of everything, and would remind us about our history through little stories told here and there.


Another important aspect to  the altar is flowers. Marigolds are the traditional flower in Mexican altars and Dia de Los Muertos art and ceremony. They represent death, and are said to attract the spirits to the home and altar. In Mexico, marigolds are fashioned into huge archways, and marigold petals are spread on pathways to homes and to cemeteries, so loved ones may find a path home and back again. They are also a bright and vibrant smelling flower, so they have attractive and celebratory qualities. My grandmother loved flowers, and almost always had fresh flowers of some sort in her home. She had magnificent rose bushes around her house and yard, and I remember going outside with her to pick the best ones to cut and display on the table:)


A few other aspects usually on traditional Mexican altars are beautiful paper cut outs, representing the element of wind. We did not make these this year, but instead, used paper flowers. Also we may make later today some sugar skulls, symbolizing that life is sweet, and pan de muertos that represents the soul. If we run out of time, we will head down to our local panaderia, where we can purchase this beautiful and tasty treat:) It really doesn’t matter if you follow a traditional route of creating the altar or not. Creativity and fun is a big part of it. Creating this altar has been a fun and educational experience for both me and my kids, and has been a way to remember and connect to who our grandmother was. It is also a wonderful way to present death, as something that is not to be feared, but celebrated in love.  As my 3 year old said when she looked at the completed altar, it is also “a celebration of life!”