That event inspired me to learn more about death, dying, grief and mourning, and I signed up for a seminar in Mexico about The Day of the Dead.
The Day of the Dead is a national holiday that falls at the end of October and the beginning of November. It is usually observed from October 31-Nov. 2, with citizens getting the day of Nov. 2 off. It begins with family members creating an Ofrenda, or altar, in their home on the eve of October 31. They decorate the offering with paper cutouts and cover it with photos and mementos of loved ones who have died, with candles, flowers, traditional breads and with their loved one's favorite dishes.
A path of marigold petals leads from the entrance of the property to the altar, to lead the loved ones to the display.
Many families also decorate the graves of loved ones, and some spend the night of Nov. 1 at the cemetery, feasting and feeling close to those who are gone.
I returned from Mexico convinced that this practice would translate well to an American church context. Happily, I have been right.
It is easy to set up an Ofrenda in your home or your worship space. Begin with a table large enough to accommodate photos, flowers and candles. At church we generally place a smaller table on top for a tiered effect. At one church I used a tiered poinsettia stand. Cover the table with a white cloth or sheet. Flowers in vases, candles, dishes of food, etc., help anchor the tablecloth. (Usually we just stick with the traditional Pan de Muerto, or Bread of the Dead,
sprinkled with pastel colored sugars in pink, orange and blue.)
Then come the colorful cutouts. These are like large snowflakes cut from crepe paper. Usually the children at the church are invited to create these on the Sunday before the celebration. These are taped to to the front of the white cloth. Depending on where your church is located and how your worship space is set up, marigold petals may or may not be a suitable addition. In early years we harvested marigolds and froze the petals, but as they thawed they stained the carpet. I also tried mum petals before settling on orange and yellow confetti.
Worshippers are asked to bring photos and mementos of loved ones. As the photos arrive, arrange them on the altar. I usually light a few large votive candles prior to the service, and then after the sacrament of communion I invite people to come up and light a candle in honor of lost loved ones. I usually use small votive candles for this purpose. I have also provided colorful cutouts of autumn leaves for people to write the names of loved ones upon and place upon the altar.
This is a photo of a pretty traditional looking altar (except for the black cloth.) Here is a photo of a nice home alta
Altars can getpretty elaborate and include wired arches made of marigolds.
The first time I celebrated this custom in the United States, I was both really excited to share with my American Congregants and really afraid that they would find the entire thing weird or even offensive, so I put it in the entryway of the church rather than up front. I needn't have worried. By the time it was all over everyone was suggesting we move it up front. The next time I did, and it has been up in the front of the church ever since.
I do take care every year to explain and prepare the congregation, particularly as new people need to learn about it and others forget aspects from year to year. Sometimes I make a flyer explaining the practice to the congregation and even then I always explain verbally and point out each element of the display.