Time to Speak — Reasons for ‘Day of the Dead’ altars


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 — 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), which is when it is celebrated.

In rural Mexico, people visit the cemetery where their loved ones are buried. They decorate gravesites with marigold flowers 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 you may not know personally but would still like to honor. Anyone who 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. The altars are surrounded with flowers, sugar skulls, food and pictures of the deceased. Candles are lighted and placed next to the altar. A Dia de los Muertos altar can be as simple or as elaborate, as large or as small, as the person creating it wants. The purpose of an altar is to remember those who have passed on.

The Office of Multicultural Ministry will erect five altars this year in various locations around the city. Each one is dedicated to a specific theme. The theme of the altars placed at the Maloney Center and the Chancery will focus on saints through a multicultural lens, saints from all over the world.

The theme of the altar placed at the Catholic Enrichment Center will focus on Black/African saints (from the African Diaspora); and the altars placed at the Flaget Center and the Archdiocese of Louisville’s History Center, located at the Cathedral of the Assumption’s Patterson Education Center, will be dedicated to Africa and peace.

These altars will be up from Oct. 29 through Nov. 19.

Charmein Weathers is Special Projects/Communications Coordinator for the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Multicultural Ministry.

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