As the end of October approaches, I consider what it means to create an ofrenda. In the Latin American tradition of Dia de los Muertos, an ofrenda is an altar that is created to remember and honor beloved family and friends who have died. While the rituals on this day may vary from graveside shrines to picnics where family and friends gather at private altars in the home, the sentiment is the same; honoring, remembering and nurturing a relationship with those who are no longer living.
In truest Latin American form, a simple ofrenda includes symbolic items such as three stacked boxes symbolizing the three levels of death the soul travels and Calaveras or skeleton figures representing the individual when they were alive. These figures reflect the interests of the individual as well as how they looked. Mementos such as photographs, jewelry, favorite clothing, musical instruments or music and other personal items can be placed on the altar. Favorite foods and beverages are also placed on the altar—all of it surrounded by candles.
Before I knew of Dia de los Muertos I had definitely never considered the idea of a graveside picnic. But wonder now what that experience might be like. What if I took a blanket, lawn chairs, Tab (Mom’s favorite beverage), tuna salad sandwiches, potato chips, chocolate chip cookies (Dad’s favorite) and sat in the wooded cemetery for a crisp autumn picnic?
I think it might change how I feel about that place and their absence. It might offer me some new comfort or insight into the journey of loss it has been. I imagine finding myself reflecting on who I was in relationship with my parents during their lives, and who I have become on this side of living without their physical presence.
If friends and family went with me, what would we talk about? Would we laugh at the funny memories? Would we shed fresh tears? Would we tell new stories? I don’t know, but now my curiosity has been stirred.
On past Dia de los Muertos, I have built a home altar. The process of sifting through pictures, gathering mementos, remembering favorite food and drinks has been comforting—not morbid. I’ve enjoyed seeing how many different things remind me of my parents’ and grandparents’ lives. In building an altar I’ve found a renewed appreciation for each person represented there. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover a sense of comfort, joy and lightness in the process. It turns out that this day is not just a solemn day, but also one to celebrate the lives of those we have loved.
What about you? What would it be like to create a graveside picnic on a sunny autumn afternoon? What favorite foods might you gather? What stories would you tell? If you built an altar, what items might it include? Are you curious to see what you might discover? Give it a try…