The most important element of Day of the Dead in Mexico is the setting up of an altar (literally “offering” (ofrenda)) to honor the dead. In homes all over Mexico, these altars are of a personal nature, featuring loved ones who have passed on. Common elements include marigold flowers (which bloom at this time of the year), religious images, food offerings and very often, photographs.
The purpose of the altars is to make a connection with the departed loved ones, as Day of the Dead has roots in pre Hispanic beliefs, which included the return of the dead once a year to visit the living. Hence Day of the Dead is not a somber or frightening occasion, but almost a happy one, a chance to relive memories.
I personally have found it psychologically rewarding, thousands of miles away from my own mother’s grave. Unable to visit it as I would like, Day of the Dead gives me a ritual to make up for it. Day of the Dead altars can vary, based on local flora, foodstuffs and arrangements based on local traditions. In my house, the altar is a mix of Mexican and American, with the traditional tamales, tequila and moles that my husband always leaves for his relatives, happily sharing space with the spaghetti, fried chicken, Pepsi and Milky Way bars favored by my side of the family.
One unique regional tradition is the “cabo del año” (end of the year) altars made by residents of the small town of Huaquechula, Puebla. Here, depending on circumstances, there may be two Day of the Dead altars. All will have the typical altar, where the dead share space. However, if someone has died in the past year, they receive one very special altar to commemorate their first Day of the Dead as an ancestral spirit.
These altars are as monumental as space and money allow, generally three to five tiers, dominating the room such that often all the furntiture is removed. Three tiers are most traditions, with the upper tier representing the Divine, often with images of Jesus, alone or as part of the Trinity. The middle tier represents intercession, with images of angels, the Virgin Mary and saints. The bottom tier is dedicated to the deceased, with foods and other items, s/he enjoyed in life and often a photograph. In Huaquechula, there is a tradition of arranging the photograph such that it must been seen reflected in a mirror rather than directly. There are several stories to explain this, one being that the mirror represents passing onto another world. The entire altar is heavily decorated, primarily with yards and yards of white crepe paper and/or white, generally satin, fabric. These may represent clouds or may indicate an origin with similar altars set up for Maundy Thursday. Other decorations include traditional candles (or more commonly, electric lights), statues, flowers, vases, sugar skulls, and more, all bought and/or created new. The cost of these altars can run from thousands to tens-of-thousands of pesos (100s to 1000s of USD). For this reason, if the deceased departs too close to Day of the Dead, generally a less than an month or two before, their cabo del año altar is deferred to the following year, allowing the family time to put the resources together.
One other significant difference with cabo del año altar is that they are not really a private, nor somber affair. It is tradition to open the house to visitors during the time the altar is erected, which means that anyone can come in to admire the beauty of the altars, chat with the family and partake of food such as atole and tamales made for this purpose. Most visitors today are tourists, who truly are welcome to come in, eat, chat with the family and even take photographs.It is not an intrusion; in fact, families appreciate the interest in the works and the municipality supplies visitors with maps showing the houses which have cabo de año altars that year.
The altars were declare part of the Cultural Heritage of Puebla in 1977. The altars are open to the public on the 1st and 2nd of November each year.
All cabo de año altar photographs were taken by the author in 2013