I had the opportunity and gift to speak to several families at the LaVista Memorial Park Day of the Dead celebration on October 26, 2013. I went to take photos at the request of the owner Luisa McCarthy, and came away with a gift of understanding the love families can have with each other.
I spoke to the Galicia family, who are originally from Mexico City and have been in National City for 17 years. Their daughter Samantha explained to me the sybmolism of each item on the family altar. She explained that each ‘floor’ has different parts of the deceased person’s life. The ‘first floor’ of the Day of the Dead altar is for candles and flowers. Marigolds are used because they are extremely pungeunt, which helps the deceased loved ones to find the altar, as their sense of smell and taste is limited. Marigolds also represent eternal life.
The second and third ‘floor’ of the altar is filled with the food and drink that the deceased loved in life. Salt is placed in a container and represents adding flavor to life. On the Galacia’s altar the grandmother had placed kitchen pots that she uses every time she cooks today. She cooks mole, beans, rice and tamales. Their alter also had Jamaica water, bread and fruit.
The top ‘floor’ of the altar is covered with photos of the departed loved ones.
I asked about the colorful skulls, and they told me that the colorful skulls are to show children to not be fearful of death. They are playful and joyous.
Samantha continued to explain to me that when the spirits come back, they need the water that is on the altar as they will be very thirsty. The salt is to add flavor to the food, as the dearly departed cannot taste or smell as well as they could in life. Everything on the Day of the Dead altar represents who the person was in life. What did they like to do, what were their favorite foods, any hobbies or toys for a child who passed. The Galicia family also had a child who had died in infancy, just as the Riggs family did. I talked to her mom, and she says the pain of losing a child never goes away, but by bringing her other children to this event and having them help with the decorating of the altar, they learn to not fear death, and also remember their lost brother.
They will stay with the altar through the night, and at the end of the night they will all eat the food they have placed on the altar as a family. The food will be tasteless, as the spirits of their loved ones will have taken all the flavor of the food for themselves.
As I said in the other blog, I am overwhelmed by the love, family and continuity of this Day of the Dead ritual. I have never seen such joy surrounding death. The faith in the afterlife, the fact that their loved ones are with God, and they know they will see them again, floors me. I was raised as an Athiest and came to spirituality late in life. Perhaps this is part of the reason behind my fascination with anything associated with the Day of the Dead.
I came to take photos, and walked away humbled and feeling honored that these families would share so much with a stranger.