Our first & last ofrenda

Though the culture of Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), is something I’ve always loved and admired, I’ve never actually really participated. My husband is Salvadoran and his family more commonly calls it “Día de los Difuntos”, (Day of the Deceased.)

He says that in El Salvador on November 2nd, you visit your deceased family members in the cemetery. You spend the day there, cleaning the grave, or paying others to repaint the name. The grave can be decorated with flowers, though he says offerings of food are rarely left because people don’t want to waste it. Sometimes priests walk around and a donation can be given for a prayer.

The day sounds less festive in El Salvador than it is in Mexico, and for this reason, the day has usually passed in our family with nothing more than a candle being lit for Carlos’s father, who died when he was younger. (Not to mention my youngest son’s birthday happens to fall on “Día de Los Muertos”, so we’re usually busy celebrating that.)

This year I wanted to make an altar called an “ofrenda”, (“offering”), Mexican-style. Carlos says this really isn’t done in El Salvador, at least not in his family.

The ofrenda is usually three tiers, signifying the three levels of life: The lowest tier represents the earth, the second tier is the in-between, and the third tier at the top is the after-life or Heaven.

There are various traditional objects which are often placed on ofrendas such as papel picado, flowers, candles, calaveras (decorative skulls, sometimes made of sugar), bread, salt, water, personal items such as jewelry, photos, favorite beverages and foods, etc.

I wanted to celebrate the holiday but my father’s side of the family is Jewish and my mother’s side of the family are Anglo-Protestants. I can’t imagine either side of the family would have wished to be remembered in this way, and so out of respect, I don’t make an ofrenda for my loved ones who have passed.

I decided to make an ofrenda to honor Carlos’s father, the man who would have been my Suegro. Along with his father’s photo and his ring, I placed a few religious items as he was Catholic, along with candles, incense and a few decorations. For food offerings, I remember Suegra saying he loved casamiento, so I put a bowl of rice and beans on the ofrenda as well.

Carlos said he appreciated the gesture and that the ofrenda was beautiful but then he gently asked me if I would mind taking it down. The sight of the ofrenda made him sad instead of happy, which was not my intention. Sadness is also not in the spirit of Día de Los Muertos. Day of the Dead is supposed to be about celebration of life, not mourning of death, but Carlos says that he has never liked the holiday, even back in El Salvador.

So, the ofrenda is no more, and what I hoped would be a new family tradition is not possible. I completely understand Carlos’s feelings and though I regret making him sad, I’m thankful our boys had a chance to think about and learn a little about the man who would have been their Abuelo, but never had a chance to be.