I Keep My Altar To The Dead Up All Year. Here’s Why It Doesn’t Make Me Sad.
“Whether or not our departed loved ones are still with us, holding them as if they are can enrich our living experience.”
By Lauren DePino
Oct 25, 2023, 09:35 AM EDT
When my husband Alan and I first toured the home we would eventually buy, the feature that instantly enamored us was the curved kiva fireplace, set deeply into the corner of the front room. Inside it are bricks, imperfectly hand-laid — some inverted, some protruding, each rectangular block etched with the name of its city of origin, Gallup, New Mexico. On top of the mantle are two tiers, and alongside it are two nichos, New-Mexico-style crevices carved in the cool, adobe wall for displaying devotional objects.
Alan took one look at that fireplace and said, “Our ofrenda will go here.”
My eyes welled with delight. Alan is a far cry from the death-avoidant people whose judgments I’ve encountered. He lets me be me.
You see, I’ve been living in a state of cosmic liminality, hovering between the worlds of the living and the dead, since I sang at my first All Souls’ Day Roman Catholic mass when I was 10.
When I sang at that heady, pleasantly eerie All Souls’ Day mass, which inspired me to later pursue funeral singing, I imagined the songs of comfort reaching the deceased people still loved by all the breathing people in the room. I hoped that however far these former mortal beings had roamed, they’d hear my musical call, luring them back to a dimension they’d once known as home.
The holiday was my favorite because it was a magical hatch or gate, a rare opportunity to reconnect with people who’d shed their physical bodies. But even at that time, just one allotted night for the dead to regress into our realm of living felt too short-lived. I wanted to linger in that verging, merging space where a reunion felt not only possible but promised.
I first learned about the Mexican holiday El Día de Los Muertos when I visited Puerto Vallarta with my mother a couple of years before. I would learn more about it when I studied the Spanish language in college and again, years later, when I met Alan, whose paternal kin come from Chihuahua, Mexico.
The holiday, traditionally held on Nov. 2, generally coincides with All Souls’ Day, and the ofrenda often displays sacred objects, photos of our departed, the foods, drinks and trinkets they favored, as well as lit candles and marigold flowers, whose zingy scent helps tempt the dead back to enjoy their earthly delights. The ofrenda is usually built on Oct. 30 or 31 and taken down by Nov. 2.
But when Alan and I, both now unreligious but still spiritual, closed on our adobe home weeks after that first walk-through, I was excited that we both wanted a permanently designated place to remind us to keep our dead with us.
Bit by bit, our altar came together. I added my favorite photo of my Sicilian grandmother, Mary Grace, post-Sunday dinner, seated in her high-backed chair like a queen. Her wall of grandchildren is visible behind her, all of us smiling with matching black-brown eyes.
I added a toga-clothed, bobbling figurine of Jesus, a trinket my oldest sister bought for me, along with a postcard from Amalfi, my paternal grandfather’s hometown. Alan added a picture of his father, Martín, in his 20s, showing off a rainbow trout he’d caught that was as tall as his upper body. And a photo of his grandfather, Francisco, king-like in a high-backed chair like Gran’s, wearing Alan’s same pronounced mouth and angular, creased jawline. His precious nephew Alex, flashing a handsome, ease-putting smile, forever 24 years young. I tacked to the bottom of a nicho, a blush-pink tapestry of Ganesh that was a gift from the late yoga teacher whose classes helped me move through my grief over my grandmother’s death.
But the same year Alan and I closed on this dream home, the same year we married in its backyard, the same year we built our altar to our dead, my 61-year-old aunt, who was like a mother and sister to me, quickly declined from a rare cancer.
When she knew she had three weeks left to live, invariably thinking of others even while facing her own death, she sent us a housewarming package. It included seeds for planting Mexican marigolds — flowers to decorate our ofrenda.
It felt impossible that I had recently texted her a photo of our ofrenda, on the eve of Día de Los Muertos, with the photo of her mother, my grandmother Mary Grace. And that she’d replied, weeks before she’d learn her time in her own body would be devastatingly truncated, “Beautiful.”
At the sight of Gran’s sloe-eyed gaze, wreathed by monarch-orange marigolds, some of them glittering citrine from the firelight, she must have noticed the flowers and thought of the gift.
A few months after her death, inconsolable and stunned, I took a picture of that same altar with my aunt’s photo on it, her massive spangling eyes and shining white smile enveloped by flickering votive candles. That chest pang surged in me when I looked at her photo. By then, Alan had painted the fireplace sunset orange.
I asked my aunt that night for a sign. In the morning, both the screen and glass doors closest to the altar were splayed wide open.
What if death is just an open doorway, after all? Whether the strange occurrence was caused by the wind or my aunt, I took it as a sign that she is still guiding me, perhaps in reply to my attempts to keep her essence alive in my life. It would be just like her to do this.
In the two years we’ve lived here, building upon our longstanding altar to the dead has proven a radical, hopeful act amid gutting loss. It’s become a daily effort to invite the dead to participate in our lives, as opposed to dismissing them as all the way gone, as all the way out of reach. It is hardly a bleak practice.
As someone whose beat has become writing about grief and loss, someone who has been told to keep both feet in the land of the living instead of submerged in the murky, ineffable land of the dead — upkeeping my altar past its designated season has helped quell the excruciating chest sting of grief.
After my aunt died, I didn’t want to stop talking to her. I wanted to include her presence in the rest of my life. And now I do.
Every day, as I pass through my house, I pass through the front room that is centered on our ofrenda. Whether I’m walking to the bathroom to brush my teeth, to the kitchen to make coffee or to the utility room to do laundry, I stop and see the faces of my departed loved ones looking on.
I cannot open or close the front door without glancing back at the images of Alan’s and my ancestors and our departed pets, ever-there, ever-here. And each time we stumble on a new item that could adorn our physical space devoted to those who are no longer physically with us, we bring it home.
Every morning and before I head to bed, I utter sentences to my longingly remembered souls that often begin with:
“I hope you’re …”
“You would love …”
“Please guide me with …”
Just reaching out, whether I get a reply or not, fills me with an ached-for connection. And a measure of acceptance that the way I engage with them has only transmuted.
It’s coming up on my aunt’s two-year deathaversary. The marigolds bloom again in our yard; we scattered dried petals from our ofrenda in the soil the previous spring, ones grown from the seeds my aunt had sent. After I finally found the courage to open the suitcase I’d filled with some of my aunt’s belongings, I added a floral fragrant rosary of hers from Lisbon, along with a mystery oval key I’d found near her lipsticks. I also added a leaf craft made by a child for Palm Sunday, which I’d found on the ground in Positano on a trip my aunt had planned to join me on. The word “pace,” Italian for “peace,” is drawn over green crayon scribbles in bold, black marker.
I put a glass prism I’d taken from my aunt’s vanity, bearing an image I’d identified as the legendary Our Lady of Medjugorje, in front of a simple candle. When I lit it, rainbow incandesce touched everywhere.
I talked to a medium soon after, and as we were about to conclude our session, she said, “Your aunt is not done talking to you. She keeps saying something about a prism you took from her vanity. She’s really glad you took it. All of those colors, you see? That’s her in the light.”
Maybe I don’t need a medium to connect with my aunt or any of my late loved ones. My ofrenda is my medium. It serves as an ever-joyful nudge to not only connect with the still-breathing but to remember to regularly gaze and reach, gaze and reach — just past that door.
Lauren DePino is a freelance writer, essay-writing coach, and songwriter. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Time, The Washington Post, and more. She is working on a manuscript titled “Funeral Singer: A Memoir of Holding on and Letting Go.”