By Charmein Weathers
More than 500 years ago, when the Spanish conquistadors landed in what is now Mexico, they encountered natives practicing a ritual that seemed to mock death. It was a ritual the indigenous people had been practicing at least 3,000 years and a ritual the Spaniards would try unsuccessfully to eradicate.
This ritual is known today as Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, and is celebrated each year in Mexico and in certain parts of the United States and Central America. Although the ritual has since been merged with Catholic theology, it still maintains the basic principles of the Aztec ritual, such as the use of skulls.
Today, people don wooden skull masks called calacas and dance in honor of their deceased relatives. The skulls are also placed on altars that are dedicated to the dead. Sugar skulls are also made with the names of the dead person placed on the forehead.
The Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations kept skulls as trophies and displayed them during the ritual. The skulls were used to symbolize death and rebirth. The skulls were used to honor the dead, whom the Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations believed came back to visit during the month-long ritual. The natives viewed death as the continuation of life and instead of fearing death, they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake.
The ritual coincides with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 1 and 2).
In rural Mexico, people visit the cemetery where their loved ones are buried. They decorate gravesites with marigolds and candles and bring toys for dead children and bottles of tequila for adults. They sit on picnic blankets next to gravesites and eat the favorite food of their loved ones.
In the United States and in Mexico’s larger cities, families build altars in their homes, dedicating them to the dead. A Día de los Muertos altar is meant to honor the memory of someone who touched your life. This can be anyone from the family, friends or someone that you may not know personally but would still like to honor. Anyone that may have had a positive impact on your life could be the subject of your altar.
An altar can also be made to show your support for others. They surround these altars with marigolds, sugar skulls, framed photos of the deceased and food, including pan de muerto or bread of the dead. They light candles and place them next to or on the altar. A Día de los Muertos altar can be as simple or as elaborate as you want, as large or as small as you want, also. The purpose of an altar is to remember those who have passed on.
The Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Multicultural Ministry will erect six such altars this year at various locations around the city.
The locations include the Chancery, 212 E. College St.; the Maloney Center, 1200 S. Shelby St.; the Catholic Enrichment Center, 3146 W. Broadway; Catholic Charities, 2911 S. Fourth St.; St. Patrick Church, 1000 N. Beckley Station Road; and Nativity Academy at St. Boniface, 529 E. Liberty St.
The theme of these altars is “Patron Saints on World Meeting of Families” and they honor St. Gianna Beretta Molla, St. John Paul II and St. Junípero Serra. The altars will be available for viewing through Nov. 13.
Charmein Weathers is the coordinator of multicultural special projects and communications for the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Multicultural Ministry.