Growing up in Texas alongside my Hispanic counterparts, I have had frequent encounters with the rich Mesoamerican cultural history they bring. Among my favorites is a custom of creating an ofrenda (roughly translated, altar) for the deceased in conjunction with the Day of the Dead (dubbed All Saints’ Day by the Catholics).
Having scattered my fiancé’s ashes over our pond, I journaled, did art therapy, engaged in little rituals and poured out my feelings to patient friends. However, none of these ideas for grief work compared to the year that I constructed an ofrenda a few years later. I covered a table with our picnic cloth and made a crepe paper marigold arch. I strung a banner of pierced colored tissue papers (papel picado) on a string of dancing skeletons over the altar and placed photos of him on the altar and hung a few under the arch. I burned copal, a unusual scent. I scattered some of the little silly gifts he had given me next to a bottle of his favorite wine and (on Nov. 1), spread out his favorite food, saltimbocca. Using polymer clay, I built a calavera (small skeletons engaging in everyday activities, momento mori) of him with his little spring arms poised over the computer keyboard and tiny glasses atop his cotton hair. The altar glowed with energy, like the light of a happy firefly signaling to his partner. But, as I puttered around the house and glanced at the altar, gradually its radiance waned. By November third, it more resembled the poor translation of ofrenda to resemble the word in English, altar (suggesting idolatry), in this case an altar to death. The energy had been expended. Upon disassembling the ofrenda, I realized honoring his demise and its finality had seeped into my bones. I could say goodbye and let go. What a beautiful way to grieve, this ancient Mesoamerican rite!