Listen more often to things than to beings.
‘Tis the ancestors’ breath, when the fire’s voice is heard.
‘Tis the ancestors’ breath, in the voice of the waters.

Those who have died have never never left
The dead are not under the earth
They are in the rustling trees
They are in the groaning woods

They are in the crying grass
They are in the moaning rocks
The dead are not under the earth

Those who have died have never never left
The dead have a pact with the living
They are in the woman’s breast
They are in the wailing child

They are with us in the home
They are with us in the crowd
The dead have a pact with the living

So listen more often to things than to beings
‘Tis the ancestors breath, when the fire’s voice is heard
‘Tis the ancestors breath, in the voice of the waters…

(lyrics to “Breaths” by Sweet Honey in the Rock. Based on a poem by Senegalese poet Birago Diop)

Our Dias de los Muertos altar has been up in our home for a week now. Before Fern goes to bed, she helps me light the candles. We spend a quiet moment in the company of old friends and ancestors, and I point out the pictures of her relatives…This is your great great Aunt Marion, she gave mama her penny collection when mama was a little girl, and the front yard of her summer camp had teeny tiny sweet strawberries growing in it. This is your great Gram, your great Papa and your great Grandad…you and he look a lot alike. This is your Uncle Matthew…

We say goodnight to all our loved ones, who are just within reach on the other side of the veil. Fern waves to them all.

It’s edgy, openly celebrating the dead. Not in many cultures, but definitely in ours. When new people come to the house, I feel brazen, like I’ve just left sitting out some giant steaming pile of taboo. Some folks glance at it and then walk hurriedly past, as if they don’t want to be caught oggling something supposedly for private eyes. I want to put a disclaimer…This isn’t my lingerie drawer. You can look. It’s for you. It’s for all of us. Maybe some of your ancestors are hanging about too. And I admit I feel a tinge of embarrassment, or shame too, and I want to justify…It’s not morbid! It’s a part of life! But the altar is an offering, to the dead and to the community of the house, and I don’t need to apologize.

I love having them here, our visitors. The house feels more full, and warm, like a party space after the guests have left. Some of them are not infrequent visitors…I sense that both of my grandfathers are around quite a lot, and I suspect this is who Fern is talking to when she is having early morning animated conversations with seemingly nothing but the space in the room. Others, like my brother, I don’t feel at all. Some, like my Gram, was nearby all throughout my 20s, but not so much anymore. Animal companions are ever present, and visit frequently in my dreams. This year I am excited to lure them all close with offerings of flowers and tidbits of favorite snacks.

I will post more in the next week or so. In the meantime, here is my post on Day of the Dead from last year. And here are the elements of our altar, and their significance, as a mini tutorial.

The large, colorful tin skull–a gift from friends who went to Oaxaca, Mexico, where the celebration is a Very Big Deal. This type of tin ornament is very traditional.

Sugar skullswe made these at my birthday party last year. (My birthday is November 1st, day one of the celebration). It is traditional to make a skull for each ancestor, and then to eat it in their honor. These skulls were more generalized, to represent the spirit of The Dead (no, I’m not talking about Jerry). And there’s no way I’m eating that much sugar.

Ancestral window–First, I took all the photos I like to put up, and scanned them into the computer. Next, I used the edit tool in iPhoto to make them all antiqued. I have an old window pane, with the glass still intact, and I attached the doctored photos to the opposite facing side. I used a thin, gauzy material with a star print to hang behind it all. Light shines in from a real window, giving a very celestial feel.

Venus of Willendorf–That caught you off guard, eh? Yes, I have a giant buxom mama that inhabits our home. She hangs in an alcove in the hallway, and I love giving her some attention this time of year. She is beyond appropriate as well, representing Earth in all her live- giving and life- taking roles.

Other appropriate items to include on a Dia de los Muertos / Fall altar are: bones and skulls, fallen leaves, candles, chrysanthemums, roses, favorite foods and belongings of the deceased, incense, pumpkins and gourds, bare branches, seeds, indian corn, papel picado, pictures of skeletons and skeletal figurines, chocolate and candy, and anything that feels sacred to you!


One thought on “Visitors

  1. I loved your altar, I’ve thought about it often along with your beautiful room. One of my favorite days of the year, last year I’d just arrived back from the USA and some friends and I went to a magical quarry to see if we could see behind the veil. I think in some way we managed it, even those of us who hadn’t taken magic mushrooms! It certainly felt powerful. xx

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