Each year, Cristina Cabreras, my daughter’s long-time school teacher, created a communal altar at school where the children would add pictures of people they had lost, along with little objects that those people liked: a piece of chocolate for a late great-grandfather, a ball of wool for a departed aunt.
Then children, parents, teachers, and staff would gather to share stories to keep our loved ones alive in this ancestral way. It seemed so light and easy for the little ones to glide between worlds as if it were just another one of their playful activities of the day.
Last year, one of the first small gatherings I attended was with Perla Yasmeen Melendez who guided my daughter and me in creating collages with photos of our dead and images we thought they would like. As we went through magazines, scissors and glue in hand, I was moved by the natural way in which I was becoming the link in this lineage. I was fulfilling my role of joining ancestors with their descendants. When the collages were done, we wrapped our creations around the tall glass of the ‘velones’ candles and used them as colorful additions to our altar.
This year, Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz, author of Earth Medicine, whom I learned about from Padma Lakshmi’s Taste the Nation, led an online gathering focused on creating an altar for ancestors. In this class, she taught us how to bring each element into the ceremony in a way that ushered the departed back to us.
She referred to our altars as portals to guide them home and by the end, they also felt like a portal of reassurance for each of us. Each one contained a candle to light the way, water to quench thirst on the long journey, aromatic copal to create a path of scent.
As a nature practice teacher, I have enjoyed integrating these Dia de los Muertos rituals into my personal nature celebrations over the years. Here are three words and reflections that have struck me along that way–each one continuing to enrich my life long after the holiday has passed.