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Laura Fraser
2013 May-June

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 of red wine and put out a jar of blackberry jam with the bread. I placed copies of her favorite magazines—the Nation and Harper’s—alongside a stack of books I knew she’d like to read. I put a pair of hiking boots on the altar and filled them with marigolds. I added her passport (she loved to travel), a piece of her silver jewelry, and other photos.

I was reluctant to put skeleton figures on the altar; it seemed too foreign, too—well—dead. But then I visited a nearby woodsmith’s shop and saw that he’d made a
colorful bench with a pair of skeletons sitting, his arm around her. It made me think of the bench that my father, who loved and was married to my mother for 60 years,
placed in a local park to commemorate her. On nice days, he rides his bicycle out to sit on the bench, to feel like he’s with her. I asked the shopkeeper whether I could put the bench on the altar, since my father is still very much alive; you can’t put photos of people who are alive on an altar, but I didn’t know the rules about skeletons. “Your father’s spirit is with your mother,” he told me, “And hers is with him, so he can keep her company.” So I added the final touch to my altar.

That evening I took a taxi in town, and the driver casually asked me, “Have you finished your altar yet?” because the Day of the Dead was the next day. 

“Yes,” I said. 

“Not many gringos do that,” he replied. 

“My mother died this year,” I told him. “It’s important to me.” 

He turned a corner. “I’m sorry,” he said. “But now you’ll have a chance to visit with her.”

How amazing that death is so ordinary, so welcome even, that you can talk about it with a taxi driver and feel comforted. The next day, some friends visited and asked about the objects on my altar, and by extension, about my mother.  They didn’t ask about how she died, as Americans tend to do; they asked about the important things in her life. She loved to read, to hike, to sit in the sun with my dad and watch the hummingbirds.

That night, I lit the candles on the altar and sat in front of it by myself as memories of my mom, her being and her love, flooded over me. It was a comfort to know that people all over Mexico were doing the same thing. And as sad as it made me to think about my mom’s death, at least, as the taxi driver had told me, I had a chance to visit with her. —S&H

Experience DÍa de los Muertos 

People across Mexico celebrate the Day of the Dead with altars and other rituals. November 1 is the “Day of the Angels,” remembering children who have died; November 2 is for others. Here are a few places in Mexico known for their beautiful celebrations.

Pátzcuaro and Janitzio, Michoacán

Pátzcuaro is the most famous venue for the Day of the Dead because the local Purepecha Indians have elaborate processions, music, and dancing. At night, people row to the island of Janitzio in Pátzcuaro Lake, lighting the water with torches. The celebration has become quite crowded, though; if you go, book early.

Mixquic, Mexico City

There are Day of the Dead celebrations all over Mexico City—including what looks like an amusement park in the main zocalo—but Mixquic, southwest of the Centro, is known for the most traditional celebration. The city-within-a-city has streets lined with stalls selling flowers and altar materials, altars are everywhere, and candlelit processions light the streets at night. 

San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel is becoming known for its Day of the Dead festivities because of a new arts festival called La Calaca (the “skeleton”) that takes place at the same time. Large-scale mosaic skulls and art installations are all over town, along with musical performances, parades of the dead, and celebrations featuring dead brides and body-painted skeletons. In the town’s Jardín, its central square, traditional altars to important townspeople line the sidewalks.


In addition to altars and colorful markets, colonial Oaxaca has sand tapestry competitions and costumed nighttime processions calls comparsas


La Calavera Catrina, a 1910 etching of the skull of an upper-class lady, has become an icon for the Day of the Dead. It was created by José Guadalupe Posada, an artist from Aguascalientes, and every year the town holds a Festival de las Calaveras, or Festival of Skulls, with arts activities and exhibitions, culminating in a grand parade of calaveras.

Click here for a vibrant slideshow of Day of the Dead altars, photographed by Cristina Taccone.