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Celebrating Day of the Dead / Dia de los Muertos

Guest Post by Frances Hernandez, Artefact Arts

I am an Elgin artist of Mexican descent and have had various opportunities to experience Day of the Dead with my family in Mexico in our home state of Guanjuato, the neighboring state of Michoacan and Mexico City.

I have been a vendor at the Elgin Public Museum‘s annual Day of the Dead event since 2015. The event features ofrendas, crafts for the children, Aztec dancers and various vendors specializing in skull or Day of the Dead items.

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Artwork by Frances Hernandez, Artefact Arts

What is Day of the Dead?

Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) is a two day holiday celebrated on November 1st and November 2nd. It’s a time to honor those who have passed away. November 1st is for children who have passed and the 2nd for all souls. The holiday’s origin in Mexico can be traced back to the Aztecs. Their celebration lasted four months. With the Spanish conquest came European and Catholic influences on the holiday. Day of the Dead today is a blend of both indigenous and Spanish beliefs.

Day of the Dead reminds us that death is part of the eternal cycle of life and it is not to be feared. It’s not a sad time. It’s a time to ensure that a soul is not forgotten and therefore never truly dies. It is a time that the departed make the journey from the afterlife back to their loved ones’ homes.

The families prepare for this arrival by cleaning and decorating the graves of their deceased loved ones, attending mass and creating ofrendas or altars, in honor of them.

What is an ofrenda?

An ofrenda can take many forms. It can be simple, or it can be an elaborate three-tier altar where items such as food, drink, photos, toiletries, candles, incense and other personal possessions are arranged. The altar is often decorated with papel picado, crosses, marigolds, and sugar skulls.

Every item placed on an ofrenda has a meaning or purpose. Sometimes there are multiple meanings. While this is not an exhaustive list and can vary from region to region in Mexico, here are some of the elements you will find on the altar and what each means:

  • Many altars have three levels. The three tiers symbolize the Aztec belief in three deaths. The first being the physical death of the body and the second being when the body is laid to rest. The final death takes place when the deceased is forgotten.
  • Copal (incense) and marigolds are also placed on an altar. Their scent helps guide the souls on the journey home.
  • The deceased’s favorite foods and drinks nourish and quench their thirst after the long journey.
  • Sugar skulls are a common item associated with Day of the Dead. They represent death and the sweetness of life.
  • The monarch butterfly’s return to Mexico for wintering coincides with Day of the Dead and it can be found on many of the decorative items on an altar.

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Ofrenda display at Elgin Public Museum, 2019. Photo Credit: Frances Hernandez

  • Candles light the way home.
  • Salt purifies the soul.
  • Papel Picado are brightly colored paper banners that are associated with the element wind.
  • Finally the altar is personalized to the deceased with photos and perhaps some of their personal belongings.

Celebrating in Our Elgin Community

Today the Day of the Dead is celebrated in the United States and in our own community as well. The Gail Borden Library and Elgin Public Museum typically hold events.

Find work by Elgin artist Frances Hernandez at Artefact Arts and on Instagram @artefactarts.

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