The Family Altar

The altar (also called an ofrenda) has roots in pre-Hispanic and Spanish Catholic practices. It is central to observing the Day of the Dead and is maintained to ensure good relations between the family on earth and the family in the afterworld. Entire families construct altars as an annual commitment. Adornments vary according to village and regional traditions, the family’s earnings and the importance of the relative or friend being remembered. Preparation of the altar can be expensive, since anything placed there for the visiting soul, including the dishes for food offerings, must be new.
Whatever the deceased enjoyed in life is remembered in preparing the altar. Photographs occupy the center and names are spelled out with cloves on fruits and with a pen on nuts. Religious images are placed on the altar, in the hope that the saints thus venerated will intercede for the protection of the soul on its journey back to the afterworld. Decorations may also include a Tree of Death, tombstones, lyres, flowers, skulls and skeletons of all sizes and materials, copal (a resinous incense) burning in a clay censer and delicately formed hearts.
Altars are an eight-course, multi-level feast with enough “soul foods” set out to provide the sustenance required by the visiting soul. These include dishes traditionally prepared for the Day of the Dead, such as chicken in red or black mole sprinkled with sesame seeds; fruit, beans, tortillas and tamales made from fresh, hand-ground corn; soft drinks or aguardiente (“white-lightening” liquor); and, as always, a glass of water to refresh the travel-wearied soul.
Altars honoring children include a small bowl of milk, special cakes called mamones, copal, pieces of chocolate, little apples, miniature candlesticks and a profusion of toys and sweetmeats.
Once the honored guest has extracted the essence of the refreshments, they are shared with family and friends, who often have traveled long distances to take part in the family’s annual reunion.