In Latin America, November 1st and 2nd are dedicated to honor those who have passed away. This tradition dates back to pre-Hispanic times before the arrival of the Europeans to the Americas and comes from the views and beliefs the indigenous had of death. The indigenous people of Mesoamerica believed that the passing away of someone was the start of a journey to Mictlán, the underworld. During the burials, the family of the deceased, would include the tools or objects they had used during their life as well as other objects that would help them during their journey to Mictlán.
Upon the arrival of the Europeans, these indigenous traditions mixed with their own belief of All Saints Day on November 1st. The synchronization of cultures brought what we know today as Día de los Muertos.
One of the main characteristics used now during the Day of the Dead is that of the altars made for our loved ones who have passed away. Those who form part of this tradition believe that their loved ones return during these days and the altars provide them with personal items as well as items that will aid them in their journey.
The altars are beautifully decorated, full of color, flowers and candles as well as other objects, all with very specific meanings and purpose.
They are traditionally of 3 specific levels: Those with 7 levels represent the 7 steps the soul has to go through in order to reach spiritual peace.The Aztecs believed there were 7 different destinies a soul could have. Those altars with 3 levels represent heaven, earth and the underworld, and two levels represent heaven and earth.
Each altar is also decorated with other typical items:
- A photograph of the person who’s altar is made for is usually presented in the center.
- Water is included to quench the thirst of the souls who visit after their long journey. It also represents pureness of the soul.
- Candles are used to guide the souls to the altar.
- Incense is used to purify the energy around the altar and many believe it keeps the bad spirits away.
- Salt is also added to bring purity.
- Flor de cempazuchitl or flor de muerto (marigold flower) is highly symbolic of this tradition and is used to decorate the altars, many times in the shape of an arc, a pathway or even a cross. These flowers are used to guide the spirits into our world. They were also used by the Aztecs who they believed their smell would bring back the spirits.
- Papel Picado also decorates altars. These often have intricate designs of Calaveras or other shapes and symbols. They add color to the altar and some believe it is the connection between life and death.
- Food and drinks, specially those who the deceased enjoyed during life are also part of the altar and of course all made for the spirit to enjoy. These dishes can also be the traditional meals of that time and place.
- Pan de muerto, typical of these traditions is also present as well as a cross, many times made out of cempazuchitl flowers. These two elements represent the incorporation of the Catholic religion into these indigenous practices.
- Altars also include sugar skulls which are decorated very colorful and are one of the most popular traditions during these celebrations.
- Toys are often seen on altars as well if the spirit who is visiting is that of a child.
- And many times little dog figurines are added to altars, which the indigenous people believed they served as companions to the souls who were on their journey.
During these days public places such as schools are filled with altars made for loved ones who have passed away, or even famous individuals who represent a culture or a cause. Many people make their altars at home or decorate cemeteries with some of these items. These altars form a connection not only to an ancestral past but also to those who are no longer with us. It is a way to remember them, remember our indigenous culture and a very distinct way of thinking about death.