We moved to Oaxaca last year right before Dia de Muertos. The special markets – the ones where you can buy all the things you need to build your ofrenda – were already up and running. People were buying papel picado (the brightly colored and beautifully cut papers), copal incense was burning on every street corner, stacks of sugar skulls smiled back at us as we walked by, and fruit and nuts were for sale everywhere. “Is it always like this?” Kyle and I wondered to each other, “Because that Copal incense is strong stuff.”
During the Dia de Muertos celebrations last year, I was moved by the spirit of this holiday – the celebration involved – the laughter, and brass bands, and dancing in the cemeteries. The beautiful decorations, both on the ofrendas, but most especially in the cemeteries. The cavalier way that everyone talked about and celebrated death. References to death were everywhere, and it just felt incredibly different from how we deal with death back in my original part of the world, where death is a permanent and sad thing, and nobody really speaks openly about it. We offer condolences to friends or family who have lost someone, but then we don’t really speak of it again if we can help it. And people are often left to grieve silently, either alone or within their immediate family.
Here, death is an impermanent state. They actually use the temporary form of the verb “to be” when speaking of death here. “esta muerto” = “he is dead, for now.” But maybe it will change. We’ll definitely see him again. It’s another stage in a big cycle. People visit their dead relatives and friends in the cemetery just like they visited them in real life – daily, weekly, monthly. Life, and family above all else, goes on. Dia de Muertos is a time to remember those people, to visit with them again, to celebrate what was and what still is.
Dia de Muertos is a family celebration, but it’s also a community one. Each member of the community lifting up all the other members, gathering to celebrate those who are no longer with us here, celebrating the good times with their beloved family and friends, both living and dead. They truly believe that the dead do return one day a year – the Day of the Dead.
And the ofrenda is for those most honored guests – full of things to remind them of the way home, and also all their favorites, from foods to music, colors to mezcal. Ofrenda means “offering”, and it’s not an altar. It’s kind of like the buffet table at the party, full of everything they need to celebrate the one night only visit of their beloved Muertos.
I knew that I wanted to build an ofrenda this year, both to honor our dead family members, but also to honor the traditions and culture of our newly adopted home.
Dia de Muertos has been celebrated in the Oaxaca valley for at least 5,000 years. It’s a huge part of Zapotec (the largest indigenous group here) culture, and people in the Oaxaca valley take these celebrations very seriously. So I did a good bit of research, attended lectures, & spoke with local friends in a quest to make sure that I properly honored this tradition.
Here is what I have learned (although I’ve also learned that this is a very individual holiday in many ways and so everyone has their own preferences).
Society dictates that:
- There must be certain items on the ofrenda (& everything else is secondary)
- There must be a visit to the cemetery
Community dictates when you go to the cemetery. The day and the time of day to go to the cemetery varies by community (Nov 2 or Nov 3, morning/noon/night/midnight). Dia de Muertos is a monthlong celebration. And there are ongoing celebrations every week of the month. It’s not just a few days at the beginning of the month, although those are the biggest.
Family traditions and the preferences of loved ones determine what else is on the ofrenda (such as the favorite foods, drinks, & music of the dead).
The Ofrenda is usually constructed on October 31st, with the goal of having it completed by midnight – just in time for Day of the Dead. The ofrenda can be super large and ornately decorated, with up to 7 levels, or as simple as a few important items placed on a chair. It depends on the preferences and traditions of each family and community. Typically, an arch is placed at the top to symbolize the Zapotec replica of the world.
The men in the family construct the ofrenda and the women decorate it. In our family, we used an existing piece of furniture for our ofrenda, but Kyle did build the palm arch at the top.
So here is what typically goes on an ofrenda in Oaxaca.
- Candles and Incense (Copal) – for their smoke & light. Smoke also converts the food from the living to the dead, so that they can enjoy it. The light from the flames & the smell of the burning copal help the muertos find their way back. There is an old Zapotec legend that says that the 5th time the world was destroyed and recreated by the Gods, the God Tláloc gathered up all the bones and stuck them back together using his own blood. From that point on, humans owe the gods bodily fluids (sweat, blood, tears). Incense is a bodily fluid from a tree (tree sap – and it counts).
- Corn – The Food of Life. Corn was originally domesticated right here in the Oaxaca valley, and it plays an important part in many traditions here. Also represents the earth. You’ll sometimes see a bowl of corn, but more likely you’ll find tortillas or tamales.
- Bread – Pan de Muertos is the most popular bread for an ofrenda. It’s usually Pan de Yema, a slightly sweet bread and, during Dia de Muertos, you’ll find it with a head on it, meaning it is food for both the living and the dead.
- Water – The Dead are thirsty when they arrive after their long journey home.
- Beans – beans + corn = 95% of the nutrition needed.
- Chocolate – also an important part of many traditions here.
- Oaxaca Cheese – is a symbol of wealth
- Fruit – The Dead are hungry when they arrive, and it also symbolizes life.
- Yellow Flowers – In Zapotec culture, yellow is the color of death, of the South, and of the God of the Dead. The strong smell of marigolds is important, as it signals to the dead and is also a sign of celebration.
- Seeds & Nuts – Symbolize life
- Papel Picado – the beautiful cut papers represent wind.
Depending on how traditional your ofrenda is, you’ll often find other things on it.
- Skulls – the tradition used to be that you polished up your dead relative’s skull and brought it to the party. But once the Spaniards arrived, they replaced that with a fake skull. These days, sugar skulls are a gift you give to your friends as a way of wishing them a long life.
- Mezcal, Beer, or another favorite libation of the Dead
- Photos of the dead
- Other favorite foods or trinkets of the dead
- People often put up funny figures or scenes as well
- Catrina often makes an appearance on more modern ofrendas
Ofrendas are a family affair and typically private – although as the popularity of this holiday has grown with tourists we are seeing many more public ofrendas in restaurants, hotels, and even the Zocalo (main square). Once your ofrenda is complete, you’re supposed to lay a path of marigold petals from the ofrenda, out your front door, and all the way to the cemetery – it becomes a magical path that only your family can see, and it is to help the dead find their way home.
Here is our ofrenda, which we constructed and decorated over a two day period.
We were lucky that our apartment came with this odd cabinet with three levels. So Kyle didn’t have to build us an ofrenda structure. We just took off all the plates and glasses and mezcal bottles. And then Kyle constructed an arch from sugar cane. The three levels represent the underworld, the earth, and the heavens.
Here are some of my favorite details from our ofrenda.
Our ofrenda will stay up throughout the month of November. Dia de Muertos officially ends here at midnight on the 30th, and we’ll be attending more celebrations in the coming weeks. It’s a special time to be here and we’re grateful to call this place home.