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Day of the Dead Altar Building

This time five years ago, Day of the Dead found me bereaved, far from home, and methodically beheading flowers. It’s ok, I’d been asked to.

I was staying at a B&B in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, and as I was there researching Day of the Dead for my forthcoming book, I volunteered to help build their altar. I cut the heads off marigolds, leaving an inch or two of stem, then a guy called Luis weaved them onto a frame, while a Canadian woman hauled in more whenever we ran low. Once the structure was built and set up in the hotel breakfast room, people wandered in and out adding the touches that would transform it into an altar.

Before I get into how you can build a Day of the Dead altar at home, I should point out that there is no hard and fast method. Mexico is an enormous country with various cultures, over 60 indigenous languages and hundreds of dialects; so unsurprisingly, a Day of the Dead altar in a northern desert town will look different to one in the lush mountains of Oaxaca. In Morelos, where I lived for two years, sugar skulls were a common sight on altars, whereas in other areas it’s frowned upon.

I’ll be passing on the method favoured by the Purépecha community indigenous to Michoacán, but keep in mind it’s about honouring the dead, not just achieving a ‘look’. If you have access to a stalk of sugarcane and want to construct an arch woven with golden flowers, have at it – but just as you’re no less married if you say ‘I do’ in jeans and Crocs, you can have a Day of the Dead altar without all the bells and whistles (though if the person you’re honouring liked bells and blew a whistle, by all means chuck ‘em on there).

What you’ll need


DAY OF THE DEAD ALTAR ESSENTIAL #1

Table (and a candle)

You’ll need a surface for your altar, ideally with more than one level. You could just place a box on the table so you can display pictures of your dead above the candles and offerings. Some altars have multiple levels starting at the floor like a little flight of stairs.

candle will light the path home for the spirits.


DAY OF THE DEAD ALTAR ESSENTIAL #2

Pictures of the dead

Who are you honouring? Put their picture on the top level. You could just have one photo, several pictures of the same person, or even crowd it with everyone you’re welcoming for a visit – this could just be family and friends, but I’ve known people to include pictures of people they never knew but whose loss they feel keenly anyway, like David Bowie.


DAY OF THE DEAD ALTAR ESSENTIAL #3

Ofrendas

The ofrendas (offerings) are the nucleus of Day of the Dead – namely, food and drink. The idea is that the dead have come a long way, so arrive hungry and thirsty. In Mexico altars are usually adorned with fruit and pan de muerto (bread of the dead), an intensely sweet, sugar-encrusted roll; and a bottle of beer, or shot of tequila – but you can leave out anything the person liked to eat or drink.

And yes, it’s fine to eat the food after the festival is over, but where I lived people wrinkled their noses at the suggestion, since the belief is that the dead suck all the nutrients out of it.


DAY OF THE DEAD ALTAR ESSENTIAL #4

Affects

This is by no means essential, but some people like to leave out things that signify or belonged to the dead person, like a stack of cards or a piece of their jewellery.


DAY OF THE DEAD ALTAR ESSENTIAL #5

The four elements

In the Purépecha tradition, home altars have to include representations of fire, earth, air and water. The drinks you leave out represent water, and the candles provide fire – as do sticks of incense (and though it’s pricey here in the UK, if you can get copal incense, the aroma will transport you to Mexico instantly).

Fruit represents earth, and the best way to represent air is to hang something off it so it can blow in the wind – a lot of altars in Pátzcuaro shoot two birds with one stone by hanging bananas off the edge of the altar.


DAY OF THE DEAD ALTAR ESSENTIAL #6

Flowers, preferably marigolds

Flowers represent the fragility of life, and I like to imagine they symbolise the dead blooming again, if only for this brief visit.

The flower of the season is the marigold. Its vibrant orange is everywhere during the season of the dead: we see it on pumpkins as Halloween muscles in, on the autumn leaves as they flutter to the ground. In Mexico, it’s the flor de muertos, the flower of the dead, and the scent (especially strong when you squeeze the petals) is said to help guide the dead to the living world. Known as cempazúchitl (also spelled cempasúchil), it combines the Nahuatl words for ‘twenty’ and ‘flower’; the word ‘twenty’ was used to represent ‘many’, so the likely translation is ‘flower with many petals’. Those many petals come in handy as they can be arranged to make a path to the altar, or a border, or just scattered for decoration and aroma.


Tips on finding marigolds

Despite being native to the Americas, they’re often sold under the name ‘African marigolds’. I haven’t always found it super easy to find fresh marigolds in the UK, as they’re often unavailable or sold out. But don’t despair, you could always buy artificial garlands and store them away the rest of the year like Christmas tinsel. You can also get real dried marigolds on Etsy – or my sneaky tactic is to scatter marigold-petal tea for the colour and fragrance.

Happy building, and Feliz Día de Muertos!

The biggest lessons other cultures can teach us about death

It all starts with the fear of death. Perhaps it was inevitable that after my fiancé and I found his father dead after a week I would end up anxiety-ridden, agoraphobic, and then somehow travelling the world visiting seven festivals for the dead. Tale as old as time, right?

I began the journey (to Mexico, Nepal, Sicily, Thailand, Madagascar, Japan and Indonesia) with a burden of misconceptions and the vague notion that my deep terror of death was misplaced. Now, four years later and on the cusp of publishing the book that sprang from it all, here are a few of the biggest lessons I brought home.


# DEATH LESSON 1

Death is normal. Who knew? (Seriously, did anyone know?)

Life has a 100% mortality rate, yet each time it’s presented as if something has gone terribly, terribly awry. In films we watched as kids, death was a punishment for baddies. Then we all grew up to discover we’re bound for a baddies’ ending. Thanks, Disney.

The idea that death is a normal, ordinary thing only occurred to me in Nepal during the annual festival of Gai Jatra, during which everyone who’s lost someone that year joins a city-wide procession. After the sudden death of his son, King Pratap Malla (who ruled Nepal from 1641–74) invited everyone who’d been bereaved that year to the palace. The Queen, who had been utterly inconsolable, watched as the palace became crammed with people. Because the biggest lie grief tells us is that we’re alone, and the visual trick of seeing thousands of people who have been through it too still holds today.

My god, I thought, as I stared across the crowd, all bouncing and dancing and singing to let the spirits know it was fine to go on to Heaven, I think death might be…normal?!


# DEATH LESSON 2

And sure, it’s true, if you want to get all literal about it: when we die, many believe we go to an afterlife or reincarnate – but as for this life, we’re done. Our projects are finished, our power is gone.

Unless you die in the Highlands of Madagascar, or in Tana Toraja in Indonesia, where the dead are seen as the intermediary between people and God. You want good grades, health, a windfall? You pray to your ancestors.

Where death is associated with a gain in power, suddenly not only are the dead remembered with fondness, their actual corpses are invited to the party. In Madagascar they’re exhumed and wrapped in a fresh shroud. In Tana Toraja, they’re exhumed, dressed in smart new clothes, held in poses for photos and are brought onto FaceTime calls with family who couldn’t make it.


# DEATH LESSON 3

You can have a continuing relationship with a dead person

They say “grief is love with nowhere to go”, and we nod along sadly, as if all over the world there aren’t rituals and festivals and events with the clear purpose of giving the love somewhere to go.

In Mexico, they welcome the souls of the dead by setting out their favourite food and drink. In China (and Thailand, where I celebrated with my extended family), they picnic in the cemeteries and burn paper money, a kind of divine postal system of sending gifts to the dead.

And in Tana Toraja, I watched a woman sit by her long-dead grandmother and take in the dramatic mountain view. She then turned, spotted some dust in her hair, and brushed it away.

No one told me how ridiculous it would seem that this could ever be called ‘morbid’, ‘ghoulish’ or ‘macabre’. No one told me how visible the love would be.


# DEATH LESSON 4

The policy of silence does nothing but harm

Ok, I’ll acknowledge the short-term benefit of not talking about death until we absolutely have to: for that moment, we don’t have to feel a twinge at thinking about something we’ve been told is fearsome. We can kick the can down the road. And who doesn’t love those few moments before someone forces you to pick up the can? Ooh, those can-free moments are like a carnival cruise.

How shrewd of our repressed society to teach that there’s something distasteful, even shameful, about bringing up something people would rather not discuss anyway. Talking about money is vulgar, tacky, gauche. Talking about sex is uncomfortable, rude, a bit much. And talking about death is, apparently, ‘morbid’ – alright, if a guy is licking his lips while talking about the intricate details of bloating and decay, I’ll agree that’s a bit morbid, and no way to conduct yourself on a first date – but it shouldn’t be gasp-inducing to discuss the inescapable fact of your own death, or your wishes for what happens afterwards.

Dealing with death denial

But death denial isn’t just silly; it’s violence. Shouting down our parents and grandparents when they mention they won’t be here one day may seem like a way to say, “I love you and I want you here”, but the knock-on effect of the policy of silence is heartbreaking: people with terminal illnesses in Britain often find themselves deserted by friends and family who “don’t know what to say”, or “want to remember them as they were”. While writing This Party’s Dead I had the opportunity to chat to Laura Green, a lecturer in palliative care at the University of Manchester, who told me when people are dying they are “almost treated as though they’re dead bodies, even though biologically things are carrying on”. They die social deaths before their physical deaths, simply because we don’t have the emotional equipment to face it.


FINAL THOUGHTS

The western way of grieving

If my brief were to defend our way of death over what I’ve seen at the festivals, I’ve got nothing. Because in places that hold celebrations for the dead, people remain part of the community long after their physical deaths. The love that sustained them in life is still there, bringing them meals, buying them clothes, brushing the dust out of their hair.

Talking and planning for death

Talking about death isn’t easy. So we put the conversation off, and off, and off again, always taking the short-term avoidance, the chance to pretend it’s something that happens to someone else, and never to us.

If there’s one lesson other cultures can teach about death, it’s to embrace it. It will happen to the best (and indeed, worst) of us. And talking and planning for what should happen when we’re no longer here can help us lead a fuller life.

Build my deathplan

According to ONS figures, the upcoming month of March is the most fatal period of the entire year, with more deaths worldwide in the third calendar month than at any other time.

Grieving family members might be able to seek solace in the fact that there are hundreds of funeral home names which have a sense of humour. But which are the funniest, we wondered?

We compiled a list of all the wild and ridiculous names out there, and then asked people to rank what they thought were the funniest, and these are the results…


Minge Funerals

When taking over Minge Funerals from Claude and Elizabeth Minge, Sally Harrington and her husband Scott decided the Minge brand and values were too important to change. Located in South Australia, they continue to deliver burial or cremation services at the generous Minge Chapel which seats over 150 people. Spacious, right?


Amigone Funeral Home

Located across 14 locations serving Western New York State, Amigone funerals begs the question, are they really gone?


Slaughter & Son Funeral Directors

Not to be mistaken for a butchers shop (pretty easy mistake), Slaughter & Son Funeral Directors is located in Chicago, Illinois. Despite this being a pretty awkward word to associate with funerals, the directors still manage to bring in customers who seem oblivious to the rather hilarious name.


Hollerbach Funeral Home

We may be wrong, but we don’t think that the dead can exactly ‘holler back’? Perhaps in 1926, when the Chicago based funeral home was established, ‘holler’ didn’t have quite the same meaning then as it does now…


Bruce & Stiff Funeral Home

Sorry, Bruce and what? We know that your company name should reflect the profession you are in, but surely this funeral home in Virginia has taken that just a little bit too literally?


Downer Funeral Home

Funerals can be a bit of a downer, can’t they? Nick J. Downer, owner of Downer Funeral Home in Connecticut, obviously agrees. What we want to know is, did he go into funerals because of his surname, or is it just a bit of an unhappy coincidence?


Go As You Please Funerals

This might be a bit tricky for some of the guests, but Go As You Please seems to offer an open door policy to funeral seekers. Claimed to be the largest independent Funeral Directors in the North East, the company prides itself on its flexible nature to deliver.


Resurrection Funeral Home

Do our eyes deceive us or is this funeral home offering a path back to life? This parlour in Michigan provides both funerals and cremations – if you have both together, does it come with a free resurrection? Asking for a friend.


Cease Funeral Home

Perhaps a play on the word deceased, or perhaps derived from their embalmer Ed Cease, this funeral home is enough to make anyone take a double look. Founded in 1901 in Minnesota, this is one of the oldest funeral homes on our list. Really, if you ask us, that’s more than enough time for a quick name change…