Dia de los Muertos for Beginners
October 31, 2012 9:24 PM   Subscribe

I'd like suggestions for assembling an altar in memory of my father for Dia de los Muertos/Day of the Dead.

I'm in San Francisco and just today realized that I really want to remember my father as part of the Dia de los Muertos festival in Garfield Park on Friday. I've read a bit of the website and would like to include traditional and on traditional aspects (I think?). What do I need to include as part of the traditional aspects and where best to get them? I can get anywhere in the city and am assuming the Mission District would be best. Candy skulls, special bread loaves, marigolds? I've seen the candles at Safeway. I can cut flowers from my garden and have various mementos of his and photos that I'd like to include. Is that about the extent of it? I realize that the altar can be whatever I want it to be but I'd like to be part of the tradition. He would have liked it, too.

If you've ever participated in the SF event or other ones, any tips would be appreciated. I've been to the event before and wandered the park after the procession but it's been years and I could use some help with actually participating in the altar-building.
posted by otherwordlyglow to Society & Culture (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
All this stuff that you are planning to buy is kind of beside the point. The sugar skulls are pretty, and so are the marigolds... but. They are momento mori, general reminders that you will die.
However, the point of building the altar is to remember your father. It should consist of things that he liked.
If I were to build an altar to my great grandmother, it would have Marlboro Reds, Jergen's lotion, glycerin scented with rose oil, and cominos. I would play Lawrence Welk. She liked to watch his show in the afternoons. It would also have a picture of her.
Dia de los Muertos is about hanging out with your beloved dead. They aren't all that far away, after all, and you will be with them soon.
posted by pickypicky at 9:44 PM on October 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

Traditionally, what you'd put on an altar would be things that would attract your father to it, and remind you of him -- an article of his clothing, a photo of him, foods and drinks that he liked. Here is a photo of an altar set up at a Day of the Dead exhibit in Seattle this week. There are some others in that photo set, but that's the one that's most family-member oriented. Note the Tecate, Coke, and Pepsi -- those would presumably be drinks the person being remembered liked. The white cloth on the table and box creating an elevated area, the fruit, tamales, and pan de muerto are traditional elements, as are the marigolds, but if they aren't part of your tradition you should feel free to use whatever is most appropriate for you. Are lilies the flower most closely associated with death for you, or chrysanthemums? Go ahead and use those.

I've got some scholarly papers here on iconography and traditions of Day of the Dead I can send you if you're interested, but mostly I recommend going to google image search and looking at photos of what others have done. "Ofrenda" is a good search term for that.
posted by hades at 9:54 PM on October 31, 2012

I'm definitely planning stuff that would "attract" him. So far I have his glasses, one of his hats, some shaving cream he liked. I was thinking about getting a few cigars as well. He loved his cigars and it's definitely something (the scent) that I associate with him although they contributed to his demise so I'm not sure how comfortable I am with including them. The traditional elements of Day of the Dead aren't really his or my tradition but on the other hand, he was a great lover of all things Mexican and really loved the culture so it feels right to me to try to include some of that as well.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 10:16 PM on October 31, 2012

Cigars, alcohol and soccer team gear are very typical for this. So if he was into a sports team, maybe a cap, or a trading card of his favorite player (for me, it would be Roberto Clemente, but you know, whatever works for you).

A meal he enjoyed. Pictures of the family. Pictures of him. A lottery ticket. A bottle of his favorite cologne.

If you want to mix some metaphors (and why wouldn't you?) Go to Chinatown and get some paper money and incense. (to me, this just dresses up an altar)

You'll see statues of saints, Jesus or Virgin Mary. So if a religious icon is up your alley, something like that.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:00 AM on November 1, 2012

You're missing papel picado!

Little statues of skeletons doing everyday things (playing guitar, dancing, etc) are very common as well. I'm not familiar with San Francisco, but I know in Los Angeles you can buy this sort of thing on Olvera Street.

My sister uses strings of LED christmas lights in her ofrendas, which is not traditional, but I really love the look of it.
posted by Juliet Banana at 6:57 AM on November 1, 2012

Just back from a quick shopping expedition and hit up a bunch of stores on 24th Street. So now I have a tiny skeleton golfing (his favorite sport to play), some papel picado, a few paper flowers (I'll get fresh from my garden), rice pudding (another favorite), some pan de muerto, a bunch of candles, and a few skulls. I'm going to add in a bunch of his own personal effects and photos and will try to combine it all tonight as a dry run. Still need to get cigars but quite frankly, I have no idea where to do that other than a smoke shop and I'm going to have to find one first. Ideally i'd have music but I think the rules for the event I'll be at say that you have to get a permit for ANY amplified sound.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 11:18 AM on November 1, 2012

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