Building an Altar to the Dead

A Step-by-Step Guide to Building Your Own Altar This Día de Muertos,” from the Remezcla (” the most influential media brand for Latino Millennials”) website.

Rooted in pre-Hispanic traditions and mixed with elements of Christianity, the ofrendas – which can consist of several levels, depending on space – are a place of gathering. Not only do they unite the living and the dead, they’re also a space to share stories. Each family member contributes by talking about their history.

You can build ofrendas, which include items that reveal a little into the person you’re celebrating, anywhere within your home. Centered around the photos of a loved one, ofrendas typically commemorate those you knew personally. But it’s not rare to see ofrendas honoring celebrities, especially those we feel we know firsthand.

The beauty of these altars is they can take any shape and are highly customizable. But they should represent the four elements: fire (candles), wind (papel picado), earth (food), and water. While no two ofrendas are alike, here is a eight-step guide to get you started.

I published a similar set of instructions earlier along with some reflections. 

And after that, La profesora became upset that students were doing it wrong — in other words, they were being too much multicultural with their altars to celebrities, etc., and so the campus-wide altar building in the Student Center was stopped, while only one “correct” altar was erected in a showcase in one classroom building.

One thought on “Building an Altar to the Dead

  1. Pitch313

    The expansion of a ritual, practice, outlook,holiday, and cultural celebration into other, larger, different arenas is always challenging. Dia de los Muertos is undergoing such an expansion. So it’s becoming both more and less than it once was. No longer indigenous. Now popular. Even intertwined and popularized through commercial aspects of popular culture (a James Bond and a Disney movie, for instance). It’s more or less a world-wide sort of event these days.

    Cultural survival, longevity, and expansion gets complicated. Frankly, it often baffles or hobbles me.

    How much should cultural elements become like art forms or games or story universes? If that sort of becoming contributes to their presence among us culture bearers?

    Can doing it culturally “right” lead to cultural extinction?

    Should new approaches to current situations supplant traditional approaches that may no longer be relevant?

    Can I borrow elements that satisfy my circumstances from somebody else’s culture–and change them?

    I get kinda dizzy.

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