Small white candles cast a soft light on photos dispersed around the table. Surrounding other ornamental items are multi-colored flowers and works of art of different media. Hanging on the wall above the altar is a blue, orange and pink papel picado, a line of tissue paper with small cut-out shapes. At the very top, a large heading looms overhead reading “Día de los Muertos.”
The Mathers Museum of World Cultures has been building its own community Day of the Dead altar for several years. It is a collection of new items that are arranged each year with previous offerings. The altar is also open for all members of the community to place their own offerings in honor of loved ones who have died.
Through Nov. 1, visitors can bring their own items to place on the altar Tuesdays through Fridays from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Assistant director of the museum Judith Kirk said the art displayed on the altar is a popular way for loved ones to grieve.
“You’ll see drawings and poems in particular in honor of the person, or even animal, who has passed away,” Kirk said. “I think that art itself allows us to be fully expressive of our emotions and be more open about our feelings.”
A stark contrast to the dark, mysterious ambience of Halloween, Día de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday full of joy and celebration. The festivities feature bright colors and ornate details, seen in bunches of flowers, painted skulls and lavish costumes. During the multiple days of the holiday, families keep the spirits alive of the family members who have passed, honoring them with respect and love.
One integral component of the holiday is the decorating of an altar or ofrenda. These are built inside homes or cemeteries and are not meant for mourning the dead but rather as a welcome for their spirits back into the living realm. Items such as water, food, toys or photos are placed on the altar as an offering to the dead. Colorful skulls, lit candles and bright yellow marigolds, known as the flower of the dead, enhance the altars as decoration.
“I think (viewing the altar) is an opportunity for people to learn about this particular tradition, a tradition of memory and honoring,” Kirk said. “I think the reason it is so accessible to everyone is because this is the human condition. We love, we embrace, and we lose our loved ones. It’s something that unites us as a species, this desire to share our memories.”