One of my favorite things about October, aside from cooling weather, fuzzy socks and hearty homemade soups, is putting up my Day of the Dead altar.
While it’s not part of my heritage, it is a tradition that makes a lot of sense to both my head and my heart. My first experience of a DOTD altar was when I was in art school – one of the professors did a huge one in the school’s gallery every year. I fell in love with the bright colors, and giddy skulls and skeletons that covered nearly every inch. The idea of celebrating Death, of laughing, not at but with it, was entirely new to me and the fact that it was done on such a personal level, paying homage to your own loved ones, appealed deeply to me, coming as I was from a dour New England-Yankee-fied perspective on such things. It both adds to and alleviates some of the mystery surrounding death. It’s also an excellent excuse for one helluva party.
My own altar has evolved over the years – early on I was young (and lucky) enough not to have many close relatives and friends who had passed away. In fact, my maternal grandfather, who died when I was six, was the lonely inhabitant for quite a few years. Since then, the rest of my grandparents have joined him, as well as a succession of much-loved pets, and most recently, my wonderful stepfather Rick, who succumbed to cancer just over a year ago.
At the time, I found that assembling the altar a mere two weeks after his death and hunting for just the right picture of him to include was profoundly comforting to me. It confirmed for me all the best reasons for doing this, and I know it’s a tradition I will always follow, and hopefully instill in Jamie as well. Last night, as I put the finishing touches on the altar, he asked me if he could be the one to put ‘Grampy’s’ picture on it. Amid sudden tears, I watched as he carefully placed the photo right at the front.