Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, is the Latino Catholic variation of All Souls Day. Some other Catholic countries celebrate All Souls Day too. Its not different from All Souls Day, but Day of the Dead does put a different spin on the holy day. Its proximity to All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween) and its focus on death (skulls, skeletons, graves) may lead you to think Dia de los Muertos is Latino Catholic Halloween. It’s not. Halloween was a blowout before the All Saints Day holy day (kind of like Mardi Gras before Lent). Traditionally, on All Souls Day, families gather at the graves of loved ones to honor deceased family members. That’s the root of Latino Dia de los Muertos too. That it’s morphed into a drinking bash is just another example of how holidays (holy days) have been secularized. Here one way to observe a spiritual Dia de los Muertos by making a family altar in your home.
You can set up your All Souls Day family altar indoors or outdoors. If you make an outdoor shrine, also called a grotto, you’ll want to erect a canopy or enclosure to prevent items from getting damaged if they are rained upon. Make your Catholic Dia de los Muertos altar as large as a outdoor shed or as small as a table top shrine. For an indoor family altar, you will need:
A table (card table, buffer or folding table or larger utility table work well). Or use a pretty corner table. Cover it with a homemade blanket, quilt or brightly colored cloth. If you have a quilt or blanket made by the deceased person use that. Arrange framed images of deceased family members. Place a black ribbon on images to signify that they have passed away and you are in mourning for them.
Light family shrine with votive or altar candles (these may be decorated candles or plain candles in decorated holders). If you wish to observe a Latino Day of the Dead, place decorated skeletons or skulls (or calaveras) around the shrine. You might dress a skeleton to resemble the deceased. Or carve a white pillar candle to look like a skull. This is not a ghoulish thing. This is how Latino families show their reverence. Actually it’s a pretty old cross-cultural tradition to visualize death. But if you’re not comfortable skulls and skeletons, you don’t have to use them.
Arrange potted trees, plants and flowers to commemorate life after death. A living plant is a nice memorial. You can think of the person’s spirit living on in it. But you can use silk or fresh cut flowers too. Choose flowers that were favorites of the deceased.
Place objects belonging to the deceased on the family altar. Display mementos and reminders of the dead: war medals, military insignia, club or school insignia, sports jacket, awards, trophies, diplomas, certificates and memorabilia. Place items used by the deceased on the altar. Jewelry, clothing, accessories, handwritten letters, tools, musical instruments, sports equipment, handmade goods (knitting, crochet, blankets, sewing, wood or metal projects, works of art). Show items that represent interests of the deceased.
Provide food for the journey in the afterlife. A Dia de los Muertos family altar features harvest foods: apples, pumpkins and squash. You can decorate with fall leaves and foliage, too. Play a CD of religious music (with player hidden beneath the table). Place religious Catholic Christian objects: statues, icons, holy cards, religious medals, scapular, rosary, Bible or crucifix. The idea is to create a place that commemorates the accomplishments and life of the deceased. Many families use the altars as places of family worship and prayer.