“Altar de Muertos”, how to set it and what it means
Anthropologist Hilaria Mass Colli, teacher and researcher at the Unit of Social Sciences of the Autonomous University of Yucatan UADY, gave her expert insight on “Altares de Muertos” in an interview with Grupo Megamedia.
“The main factor to consider is the person to which the altar is dedicated. The objective of setting this offering is to honor the memory of a loved one, and to remember the values and teachings this person left behind”.
Once the subject is defined, we can proceed to place the following objects:
Cross: “Since “All Saints Day” and “All Souls Day” are both orginally Catholic celebrations, a Christian cross is the element that represents all who practice that religion”.
Candles: The researcher says that candles are very important. “If the altar is dedicated to a child, color candles are used; if it’s dedicated to an adult, we use black or white candles. The candle means light … people who are already resting in peace, are now with God, and their memory shines as a candle. Besides, from a religious perspective, the candle is considered liturgically the figure of Christ, the light of the world,” stated the researcher.
Flowers: This item can vary and even when its use is not as rigorous, most people use them as an ornament for their altars. “Back in the day, people used to cut some flowers from their gardens or patios, but now, flowers are mostly purchased at flower shops” Professor Mass stated.
Incense: The smoke of burning incense is interpreted by both Catholic and Christian churches as a symbol of the prayer of the faithful rising to heaven.
The glass: “More than a symbolic element, the glass of water serves as a digestive for the souls and for them to swallow the food” the specialist pointed out.
Photograph: “This is another “modern” element that recently joined this tradition and is not mandatory” the anthropologist said; “the photograph is there to remind us of that person and honor his or her memory.”
Tablecloth: “It can be color, for children, or white, for adults. Its meaning is purely ornamental. When you invite someone for dinner at your house, you set up the table with a pretty tablecloth, in this case, this is a special meal for our dead, they are the guests of honor, so it is a celebration and we must use a nice tablecloth.”
“November 1st is “Día de los muertos chiquitos” (Children Day of the Dead), simultaneously with the Christian holiday of “All Saints Day”; the altar of children must have flowers and white candles, symbolizing purity. The table may contain candy and small, brightly painted toys so that the souls of little children can play”.
“November 2nd is “Día de los muertos adultos” (Adults Day of the Dead), simultaneously with the Christian holiday of “All Souls Day”; on this day, the souls of the deceased adults return to their families to spend time with them, enjoying their company, in addition to feeding with the scent of the offerings relatives and friends have put on the altar.”
A smaller altar can be put aside for the forgotten dead, those who have no one to pray for them, this altar is for those who died in accidents or natural disasters such as earthquakes or hurricanes, it is our duty to pray for them and honor their memory on this day.”
Finally, other details that meet the tastes of the deceased can be placed as part of the offering. “If it is an altar for children, we include their favorite toys; and for the adults, some of the things that appreciated in life” .
Food is one of the main elements of the altar. During the celebrations it is customary to prepare three meals a day, respecting the favorite dish that the deceased used to enjoy when they were alive.
Hilaria Mass concluded that in most Mexican towns, it is customary to include large breads, tamales, atole, chocolate or even a can of beer or a “Caguama”, always respecting the taste of the deceased. But she emphasizes that the food needs to be consistent with the family’s economic situation.