George Eliot said; Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.
The origins of Dia de Meurtos go back 3,000 years to the Mexica, Maya, Purépecha and Totonaca Indians, who prior to the arrival of the Spaniards memorialized their ancestors during the month of August with candlelight processions, flowers, incense, puppets and statues of gods, heroes, mythological figures and painted skulls which told the stories of death and rebirth.
After the colonization of the Americas, when the church outlawed many indigenous practices, these Native rituals and celebrations were folded into the Catholic holidays of All Hallows Eve on October 31st, All Saints’ Day on November 1st and All Souls’ Day on the 2nd, with Christian saints replacing the Native figures.
Our ofrenda is set up, with the four elements represented, earth by the food, wind by the papel picado, water in the sherry glass and fire by the candles. Plus there is salt and painted skulls and skeletons that serve as reminders that death and rebirth are a great cycle.
Of course, no ofrenda is complete without flowers. The marigold is the basic must-have flower which forms the arch on every ofrenda. It may be augmented by any flower but it is well-known that the favourite flower of the Meurto is the marigold. I have added spider mums, peonies and carnations. While copal is the traditional incense I couldn't lay hands on any so I burned pine incense because most of my Meurtos came from areas where the pine is the dominant tree. A pine log fire was the very scent of home.
The ofrenda honours those loved ones who have passed, so we have photos of family members on the shelves; my parents Charlie and Mattie, Tony’s parents George and Kinette, my paternal grand-parents, Josie and Fred. There’s my maternal grandfather Henry and Tony’s maternal grandmother Marie Theresa. Then there’s a photo of my grandfather Fred’s parents William and Susan Ann, and grandmother’s Josie’s mother, Kizziar. My brothers Hall and Harrell and sister Ruby are also there, and second parents Midge and Barney. Barney was one of my high school teachers, and they became like a second family to me.
Nov 1st is called "Dia los Angelitos" (Day of Little Angels) and the Spirits of the children who have passed are said to visit their families, so on Nov 1st ofrendas are decorated with toys and sweets, for the children in the family who have passed. We have no photos of Isabel, the baby girl we lost in 1971. I found an angel card which I’m letting represent her. I added some small toys, a teddy bear, Babar and Celeste, a doll and cradle (miniatures made by much-loved friends years ago) and of course candy and colourful cupcakes. To her left are Ixchel, Mayan Goddess of women, and her Rabbit companion.
We have placed a smooth green and grey egg carved from agate, the size of a robin’s egg, which belonged to Tony’s father George on the ofrenda as his memento. George brought it back from Ecuador in the 1930’s. He was a geologist, and he loved shells and stones.
I never saw Tony’s mother without the small golden hoop earrings that are clipped to her photo. She took them off and gave them to me before going into the surgery she did not survive in February 1990. There’s also a tiny pair of wooden Dutch clogs, carved in 1901, which belonged to her. They are empty in the photo above (Angelito Day) but on the 2nd I placed a cigarette in each clog, one for George and one for my Dad.
A beer and a Coca-Cola, in the small old-style bottle, complete the meal. While the Meurtos can’t eat, drink or smoke, their Spirits are said to enjoy the “essence” of the food and drink on the ofrenda, and if they were smokers, one is expected to put out a cigarette for them - after all they no longer have to worry about smoker’s cough, do they?
Tucked onto the edge of Tony’s grandmother’s picture frame is a teeny gold Crusader’s Cross with “Jerusal__” on it. The the last letter(s) are worn off. This little medal was one of the gifts her brother Albert brought back for her when he went to Jerusalem in 1901. She wore this tiny medal and a an equally tiny crucifix on a fine gold chain around her neck. Her brother died in 1929, so I’m guessing she passed this tiny Crusader cross through her thumb and finger as she prayed for him for 30+ years after his death.
My Dad's memento is a plastic coin case which holds a 1979 John Kennedy 50 cent piece. How many times have I seen him fish that coin purse from his pocket and dig change from it? It says, “Forget Not All His Benefits”. Of course it’s a Bible reference, but I remember the benefits of being raised by such an honourable and decent man.
It is in the preparation that we call our loved ones back, buying the ingredients for the meal, seeking out the chocolates, cheeses and beer they liked, going through the family albums and pulling out photos, bringing out keepsakes freighted with memories. Buying flowers, bringing out dishes, candles and the decorative skulls and figures, and at last combining all of it on, or into, the ofrenda. It is an ancient ritual, one that ties us to hundreds of generations of our ancestors. We eat traditional foods, and we remember our Meurtos, and hope they linger to hear our laughter.