My friend is an animation major at the University of Southern California. She has some Irish relatives and Mexican relatives.
My friend would celebrate Dia de Los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) by creating an altar for a loved one. She said that traditionally, the altar had to have cempazuchitl (yellow marigolds) and candles. The cempazuchitl bring about a festive look to the altar and indicate an air of celebration. My friend said that Dia de los Muertos is much more about celebrating death and celebrating dead loved ones.
On Dia de Los Muertos, the spirits come out and their surviving loved ones put candles on their altars. The candles then serve to “light the way” for the spirits to their loved ones.
This year in college, my friend had to adjust what she could put on the altar. The setup became much more simplistic and focused on the cempazuchitl and the candles. Each altar is supposed to be dedicated to loved ones – my friend dedicated her altar to her grandfather, but did not have a personal item of his in college. The tradition is to put a personal item of the deceased one as a way to indicate the altar is for them. As a substitute, my friend placed a photo of her grandfather on the altar.
I find it very interesting that this tradition of creating the altar revolves on the belief that the spirits are still a part of this world, and that those who are living have an obligation to maintain interactions with the dead. The fact that my friend talked about having to simplify the altar also makes me believe that altars are usually a really vibrant arrangement. Many of the elements of the altar visually reinforce the idea of celebration instead of mourning. It also calls for a personal involvement from the altar maker. The effect of dedicating the altar to a particular loved one is different from generally dedicating to the dead.
Kristin Congdon’s essay “Making Merry with Death,” included in Peter Narvaez’s collection Of Corpse, contains a version of this altar, which is part of the ofrenda (offering) in Dia de los Muertos:
Narváez, Peter. Of Corpse: Death and Humor in Folklore and Popular Culture. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 2003. Print.