These altars are made to honor those who have past, we build them in remembrance. So, pictures are the centerpiece to any ofrenda. For me, I prefered two older black and white photos of each of my grandmothers. In these two black and white images, Lola and Tula are nearly the same age...mid 30's or early 40's I'd say. They look so happy. They've had all their children and are both widows already. They have these relaxed, satisfied smiles on their face... like they know something we don't about life.
Skeletons, skulls and 'La Catrina,' represent the spirit world and are iconic Mexican symbols. They're ideal on an altar. Our pieces were found in markets in Mexico and are hand painted. With such eye catching color combinations these pieces pop when displayed and give the altar an aura of mysticism.
Alebrijes are another bold way to make a statement on an ofrenda. Alebrijes are mythical creatures from the spirit world who look after our loved ones once they've left our world. Like a guardian-angel, they are protectors. Village people began making these creatures out of wood, clay, sticks- basically anything. Now you can find them anywhere in Mexico, some are elaborate and ornate ceramics or like my favorite, a funky porcupine made of tiny painted toothpicks. All of them are so unique and special.
Finally, like most altars for the dead, we decorate them with flowers. The flower of Dia de Los Muertos is the Marigold or cempasuchil. Typically, grave sites and cemeteries in Mexico are always painted white. With these orange flowers scattered all over white shrines, lit up in candles, a burial place all of a sudden glows brightly, lifting the spirits of all who gaze upon it. Which brings me to my favorite part of this tradition, celebrating death. Mexican culture has a much different, more intimate and less fearful relationship to death than American culture. If we can take anything away as Americans from this spiritual tradition, I hope that it allows people to connect to those who are no longer with us. The fact that my daughter helps decorate her grandmothers altar gives us an opportunity for me to tell her stories about them. She asks about where they are now, we talk about what we're scared of.... and that's okay. It reminds us how we're all connected. It reminds us of the most important thing.... of family.