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A Proper "Día de los Muertos" Altar
Symbols & Soulful Elements Made Personal by the Maker~

So much has been written, photographed, and reported about this most-Mexican of fiestas that it is difficult to trace all origins of the many adopted features of the "Muertos" altar. Whether constructing an altar in the states of Michoacán, Oaxaca, Puebla or San Luis Potosí, the visual details beckoning the spirits from Mictlán (the indigenous name for the place of the dead), vary according to the customs of that region. But rather than noting the differences, we find the elements common to all Muertos altars the most-meaningful and compelling. Please join us in discovering the traditional ritual artifacts used in the creation of a Mexican Día de los Muertos altar.

Imagine that a beloved friend or relative is joining you for dinner after a long absence. Naturally, you wish to surround them with familiar things making them comfortable in your home. They will be thirsty and hungry after such a long journey and their favorite foods must be prepared. The flowers and candles must also be just right. They of course will be seated at a place of honor and your wish is to laugh and reminisce with your visiting guests until dawn. From these personal yet universal desires, a home altar is created.

TOP LEFT: A grave site altar features the four elements of nature, plus we may surmise that this spirit enjoyed brandy from the bottle displayed (Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán).
TOP RIGHT: At this gravesite, the deceased is honored with a beautiful embroidered cloth that adorns a basket holding the "pan de muertos" (Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán).
BOTTOM LEFT & RIGHT: Purely decorative altars created for the edification of tourists have become equally valid in today's Mexican iconography. Drawing inspiration from the skeletal images of artist Jose Guadalupe Posada
"La Catrina"the skeletal lady, embodies Mexico's seeming love affair with death and is rendered in paper-mâché, ceramics, and most notably, sugar during the Muertos season.

The foundation of a home altar is the MESA GRANDE (large table) located in a prominent room in your home, where the company of visiting spirits may be enjoyed. Next, cover your table with a favorite table cloth.  At the center of the table, favorite photos of the honored dead are placed. The addition of personal belongings and favorite foods and beverages of the deceased ensure that the visiting spirits will feel most-welcome. In Mexico, favorite offerings often include a bottle of tequila, a pack of cigarettes or a cigar (all depending upon the personal tastes of the honored), and traditional foods such as mole, tamales, and the bread of the season—"pan de muertos". Taking the hospitality shown the visiting spirit-guests one step further, the tequila bottle is open and a shot poured and waiting. The visiting souls must be served!

Pan de Muertos

In addition to these personal mementos, symbols of the FOUR ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS OF NATURE must also be incorporated according to indigenous beliefs of the Lake Pátzcuaro region; EARTH, WIND, WATER and FIRE.

is represented by symbols and aromas of the harvest season. Clay bowls filled with corn are displayed. Bowls of of fragrant fruits and squash are another important aspect when honoring the earth. WIND is evoked by the use of papel picados (artfully cut paper) fluttering freely in the breeze, and used to decorate the altar table. WATER is placed in an open container so the souls may quench their thirst after the long journey. AND FIRE is symbolized by the ever-present burning candles that guide the souls home, and they are also representative of the souls themselves.

The traditional candles of Muertos are handmade in the region.

SALT is also placed on the altar in containers and serves to purify the spirits. COPAL, incense made of tree resin, is aromatic and its smoky tendrils rise like spirits in the night further sweetening the air on Muertos. "Copaleros" or "salumerios" made of clay are the special incense holders used on the altar. CEMPAZUCHTL flowers (marigolds) form the bright and golden path further guiding the spirits on this night, and adorn the altars in every imaginable way. A HUMBLE MAT woven of local reeds or grasses, is at last placed at the base of the altar table as a resting place for the weary souls after the long journey.

The CEMPAZUCHTL flower (marigold) is most-closely associated with the muertos altar of Mexico. But other varieties of flowers such as white calla lily, maroon cock's comb, baby's breath, and lavender orchids (which bloom in Michoacán during this season) are also traditionally used for altars and readily available in the local markets in late October.

TOP LEFT: The entrance to the famed cemetery of Tzintzuntzan, completely festooned with an arch of pure cepazuchitl flowers.
TOP RIGHT: A cemetery altar is admired before it is placed at the grave site in Tzintzuntzan.
BOTTOM PHOTOS: Flowers of the season are brought in by the truck load and sold beside the Basilica in Pátzcuaro. Every household in the region will faithfully construct an altar, and there can never be too many flowers.

We invite you to experience the loving process of constructing your own home altar this year.

It is the perfect time to enjoy favorite photographs, prepare beloved recipes, and to bring fresh flowers, fruit, and the smell of baking bread into your home (sounds like Thanksgiving, no?).

And most-importantly, to take time to reflect, reminisce, and to savor the memory of loved ones.

The spirits will surely join you!

ABOVE: A beautiful home altar honoring a departed "madre".
"The Mexican . . . is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love. True, there is perhaps as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away…"
Octavio Paz
1914 ~ 1998

Begin preparing your own home altar in October, adding meaningful components throughout the month. The evening of November 1st is spent with friends & family gathered to enjoy favorite recipes, stories and music until the sun comes up. Noche de Los Muertos officially begins on November 2nd, so expect the spirits to begin arriving at midnight on the 1st!

By Debra Hall
ZOCALO Fine Folk Art
San Miguel de Allende, MEXICO
Pátzcuaro, MEXICO