Continuing with my series about cultural death rituals, this month we explore the ritual about building an ofrenda on Día de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, on November 1st and 2nd. Although it is not that time of year, this is a wonderful time for me to remember because it is near my son Benny’s birthday on April 24th. This is dedicated to him.
I was raised in a home and community that would be described as Evangelical Christian, White with upper-middle socioeconomic expectations. We generally focused on the “blessings” we were given by God: life, love and, really, the American Dream. While I do not look down on all of it (there were some beautiful aspects), there was a sense of being shielded from the realities experienced by many in our country and around the world. We also were encouraged or expected in some sense to cover over our own sufferings and challenges, perhaps due to the unspoken but widely felt belief that all things work out for the good of those who follow God. Our churches rarely had crucifixes displayed because, as I was told, we did not serve a Savior who died but one who resurrected from the dead. As a child, I remember wanting to feel distraught about the death of Jesus on Good Friday, but struggled with feeling much of anything. We did rejoice on Easter, though, mainly with new clothes, big meals and Easter baskets filled with candy.
Again, while I do not despise the rituals in my home, I do regret being shielded from contemplating death. As a teen, I remember seeing a story about Día de Los Muertos celebrations in Mexico and getting a message from someone in my life that focusing on death like that was “ungodly” and a celebration of death and dying. With all of the skulls, it seemed almost scary to me, but there was also something that felt lively and engaging – human. I kept my opinion to myself for a few decades until my husband and I moved our family to El Paso, Texas, and we could connect with my husband’s Mexican heritage.
The beauty of El Paso is indescribable to someone who has not lived there and absorbed the Chihuahuan desert for what it is – arid yet lively. The colors of the desert jump out from the backdrop of cacti and rocks. Similarly, the celebrations of Día de Los Muertos display the vibrancy and human connection within that ancient culture.
Día de Los Muertos is an acculturated holiday combining Christian Catholic beliefs held by the Spanish conquistadores with the 3,000 year old harvest ritual celebration of Mictecacihuatl, the Lady of the Dead or La Muerte, in the Mexica/Nahua culture, also known as the Aztecs. The Mexica believed that Mictecacihuatl, sacrificed as a baby, grew to adulthood and married in the underworld. She and her husband, Mictlantecuhtli, ruled the underworld together and collected the bones of the dead to be returned to the land of the living and restored by the gods. The food and precious objects buried with the newly dead were intended as offerings to these gods to ensure their safety in the underworld. Mictecacihuatl is often represented with a defleshed body and with her jaws wide open, so that she can swallow the stars and make them invisible during the day.
The original Mexica celebrations of Mictecacihuatl, were ruled over by her which is why skulls and skeletons dominate many of the rituals. Skulls were viewed by the Mexica/Nahua peoples as representing the possibility of new life beyond instead of death. The skull, or calavera, is one of the key objects displayed on the ofrenda, or “offering”, a home altar dedicated to the memory of those who have died. The shape of the ofrenda is pyramid-like with three tiers, reflecting not only the pyramids of Mesoamerican cultures but also the tepetl, or “sacred mountain”, so common and revered in these cultures. In addition to pictures of the deceased, each ofrenda also contains items which also have deep connections to the Mexica culture.
Fragrant cempazúchitl, or Aztec Marigolds, are native to Mexico and the symbolic flower of death for the Mexica, because once it is cut, it dies very quickly. Candles placed on the ofrenda light the way for the deceased to visit while the path of fresh marigolds through the house toward the altar guide the soul through their scent. Copal, a tree resin incense used by several Mesoamerican cultures, is also burned on the altar to indicate the presence of the soul returning to the ofrenda.
Papel picado, or perforated paper, forms a decorative surrounding of the ofrenda of elaborate cut-out designs into sheets of colorful tissue paper which catch the wind and represent the returning of the soul to the home. This descends from the Mexica tradition of chiseling spirit figures into bark made from mulberry and fig tree bark to make a rough paper called amate.
Water, other favorite drinks like tequila, traditional Mexican dishes like tamales and mole, and favorite objects of the deceased also are placed on the ofrenda, for the deceased soul’s refreshment and enjoyment. Most research points to the historically Spanish origin of the pan de muertos, or sweet bread with a shape of the cross, also given for the deceased on the ofrenda. This represents the anthropological and historical influences of Spain and the Mexica on the rituals of the ofrenda and the Día de Los Muertos, and which also forms much of the culture in Mexico and El Paso, and my husband and sons.
My husband had not practiced the ritual of the ofrenda in his family of origin but, when we moved to El Paso, we rediscovered the ritual as a helpful and sweet way to remember our own beautiful son, who has blood connections through my husband to Mexica culture. So, while it is not my own cultural ritual, I have adopted it as a comforting way to reconnect our family not only with the memory of Benny, but also grandparents and others who have passed in the family. When assembled, it is a gorgeous remembrance and a colorful hope of a life we cannot always see, and a reminder to let go of our fear of death.
About the Author: As a mother of six sons, Lisa’s greatest joy in life is her family. Tragically, however, in 2002, she and her husband, Aaron, lost their fourth son Benjamin in an unexpected accident. From then on, Lisa experienced a long, painful struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and deep grief. She was introduced to yoga as a daily practice to help her rest and reset her mind. After over 18 years of her personal growth as a student and a teacher of yoga, she continues to explore the relationship between spirituality, somatics and mental health. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling at Messiah University and is privileged to work with People House as an Affordable Counseling Intern. Upon licensure, she intends to combine her in-depth knowledge of spiritual practices, yoga, and meditation with clinical counseling techniques to offer holistic therapy to clients, focusing on grief, trauma and bereavement issues for parents.