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Photo Credit: Cristina Taccone
Laura Fraser

Joy In Her Bones

An American journalist honors her mother with an altar during Mexico's Day of the Dead celebration.

Mexico’s obsession with death—its manic skeleton figurines, its altars festooned with tequila, cigarettes, and skulls—always seemed strange and macabre to me. Then, a few years ago, I visited the colonial town of San Miguel de Allende and woke up on November 2, the Day of the Dead, to streets lined with marigolds, candles flickering in homes and stores, colorful cut-out papers fluttering everywhere, and families picnicking and playing guitars in the decorated cemetery. Suddenly, death was everywhere, in the guise of beauty. The mood was almost joyful, just tinged with sadness. It was a day of dressing up altars and streets to greet the dead, who, the Mexicans believe, visit for the short period when the gates of the other world open to the earth for a day.

I was struck by how death—which we whisper about in this culture, ignore and deny in its process, and sweep away, afterward, with discreet tissues and platitudes of being Sorry For Your Loss—was warmly embraced in Mexico. As Mexican writer Octavio Paz put it, “The Mexican is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, and celebrates it.” On the Día de los Muertos , it seemed that the dead had indeed come alive for the day, the lights glowing and the air crackling with their spirits. Unlike mourning in our culture, which is  private, in Mexico it is communal; everyone has lost someone, everyone suffers and celebrates the dead. It feels profoundly comforting, even to an outsider.

Since that first Day of the Dead, I’ve created altars of my own every year, to remember people in my life who have passed away. Like the Mexicans, I decorate my altars with marigolds, whose brightness and scent lure the dead from the other world. I put water and salt on the altar for refreshment, and candles to light their way. Next to photos of friends and relatives who have died, I place objects they liked, or that remind me of them: a teacup and rhinestone earrings for my grandmother, a bottle of Jack Daniel’s for a college friend, a French boyfriend’s scarf, a mentor’s favorite novel, a trail map of the resort where a high school friend loved to ski. Making the altars has been an active, creative way of remembering people who have died, creating a space in which to pause to recall the things they loved, and what made them unique.

Last year, my mother died. None of the other deaths in my life prepared me for losing my mom, who was always so active, intelligent, funny—and vibrantly alive. I was in Mexico again for the Day of the Dead, but I didn’t think I could face making an altar for her. It would be too painful and concrete a reminder of the most difficult loss of my life, the gaping hole that is always with me where she used to be.

I was staying near the market in San Miguel, where for days before the Día de los Muertos , vendors sell sugar figures for altars, papel picado —the cut-out papers—and skeletons.  I browsed and didn’t buy anything, until I saw a small sugar horse with a girl in braids on a small saddle. It reminded me of a photo of my mom as a child, riding in the mountains in Colorado, so I bought it.

I began gathering other objects for the altar—big bunches of marigolds, candles, and pan de muerto (bread for the dead). I put a framed photo of my mom, sunglasses pushed up, on the altar, and it began to take shape. I asked for advice from some Mexican friends, who reminded me to leave salt and water, along with something she liked to drink. They told me to get a petate, a rug woven from palm leaves where the souls can lie down for a rest after their journey; I found a miniature carpet that looks like one of the Navajo rugs my mother loved in her home.

For the next couple of days, as I wandered around town, I looked for objects that made me think of my mom. I felt like I was spending the day shopping with her, or buying presents for her—not mourning. I found some glass hummingbirds to hang over the altar, because she loved watching hummers feed on Indian paintbrush and other bright mountain flowers. I poured a glass