While COVID-19 will change the way that some observe the Latin American-Roman Catholic “Day of the Dead” this year, the holiday will take on a focus to particularly remember those who died from the novel coronavirus. The annual occasion is meant to honor the lives of deceased loved ones but also with the unbiblical belief that the spirits of the departed temporarily find their way back to their families to remember the things they once loved.
In San Diego County, California, volunteers are working on a victims memorial project, erecting ofrendas, or altars, to remember community members who died from COVID and to raise awareness of the reality that people are losing their lives from the outbreak.
“To honor the memory of the local victims of the coronavirus pandemic in our communities, we are creating Day of the Dead altars in affected communities of San Diego County to honor the memory of the victims in these communities,” the website for the project states. “Altars will be placed in Sherman Heights, National City, Chula Vista, and Playas de Tijuana (in Border Friendship Park).”
On Nov. 2, Border Church will offer a virtual Day of the Dead ceremony to remember immigrants who lost their lives to the virus. Other sites featuring altars, complete with photographs of those who lost their lives, will include the Chula Vista Civic Center, the Euclid Health Center and and the Red Bird Market in National City.
Co-creator Lori Saldaña told NBC San Diego that the already-existing altars at the Sherman Heights Community Center gave her the concept for the effort.
“In our culture, the idea that your soul departs and that there is no one around to be there when it happens, it makes it even more important that we welcome them back,” she said.
A page on the project website also teaches visitors how to make their own altar, explaining the significance of including food, water, candles, and incense.
“Water is a source of life and represents purity. It quenches the thirst of the spirits,” it states. “It is customary to burn copal incense, which clears the space of any negative energy or bad spirits and helps the dead find their way.”
In a separate effort, an ofrenda will be on display at the San Diego County Administration Building Nov. 1 and 2.
“The Day of the Dead altar is an important cultural tradition for our community,” Supervisor Nathan Fletcher posted to social media. “We are creating an altar in the county administration building in honor of those who have died of COVID-19.”
According to Los Angeles Magazine, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 770 Union, has created an altar in Koreatown to remember members and their loved ones who have died from the coronavirus.
“Today, grocery, drug store and food processing workers are revealing a poignant display of 1,308 masks symbolizing the UFCW Local 770 union members and their loved ones who have died of COVID-19 and were infected with the virus, next to a large altar created for Day of the Dead decorated with photos and mementos honoring union members impacted by COVID-19,” an Instagram post for the display states.
“The memorial is the largest known altar dedicated to essential workers in Los Angeles and will be on display at UFCW 770’s office …”
In Pasco, Washington, organizers are asking community members to bring a photo of their loved one who died from COVID to the Pasco Farmer’s Market for a display that will take place on Oct. 31.
Other COVID memorial Day of the Dead altars are planned at the Arizona Capital Museum in Phoenix, Arizona; Gantry Plaza State Park in New York City; and the Mexic-Arte Museum in Austin, Texas. The National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago likewise has an exhibition running that includes at least one Black Lives Matter altar.
As previously reported, the annual three-day observance, which begins on Oct. 31 and ends on Nov. 2, is believed to have originated in Mexico with the Aztecs, and was merged with Roman Catholicism after the conquistadors began taking over South American empires.
“When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico in the early 1500s, they encountered the native Nahua peoples, including the Aztecs. When autumn came, the conquistadors witnessed the extended rituals celebrated by these people honoring both death and the fall harvest,” one report outlines.
“For the Aztecs, the goddess Mictecacihuatl (literally translated as ‘Lady of the Dead’) presided over these harvest rituals. The celebrations were built around fires and incense, costumes of animal skins, images of their dead and offerings of ceramics, personal goods, flowers, foods and drink,” it notes.
As various Roman Catholic orders sought to convert the people, the traditions continued much in the same way, but the celebration was moved to the first of November to coincide with the Catholic observances of All Saints Day and All Souls Day.
To this day, those of a Latin American heritage observe El Dia de los Muertos as a way to remember their loved ones who have died. While different from Halloween, the holiday utilizes images of skulls and skeletons in both decoration and costume. Face-painting and other art often involves intricate design as celebrators depict themselves as a skeleton for the day.
Sugar or chocolate skulls are a common edible creation, and pan de muerto (bread of the dead) is also often made to look like a skeletal figure.
Most commonly, observers create a candle-lit altar that features a photo of the deceased person with a number of their favorite foods and/or drinks, as well as other items that they enjoyed in their life. Certain elements are left with the belief that the spirits of the departed can “find their way back” to their families during the celebration.
“Every ofrenda also includes the four elements: water, wind, earth and fire. Water is left in a pitcher so the spirits can quench their thirst. Papel picado, or traditional paper banners, represent the wind. Earth is represented by food, especially bread. Candles are often left in the form of a cross to represent the cardinal directions, so the spirits can find their way,” outlines El Paso, Inc.
“On October 31, All Hallows Eve, the children make a children’s altar to invite the angelitos (spirits of dead children) to come back for a visit. November 1 is All Saints Day, and the adult spirits will come to visit,” also writes author Frances Ann Day.
“November 2 is All Souls Day, when families go to the cemetery to decorate the graves and tombs of their relatives. The three-day fiesta is filled with marigolds, the flowers of the dead; muertos (the bread of the dead); sugar skulls; cardboard skeletons; tissue paper decorations; fruit and nuts; incense, and other traditional foods and decorations,” she states.
Marigolds are likewise used around the altars, as a presenter at the Sioux City Public Museum explained in a video shared to YouTube, “The smell of this specific flower brings and guides the people who have passed away to find their path to … come and visit us.”
Candles are arranged in the shape of a cross, as “this is the light for the dead people who have passed away to come to us … they can see the path and come to visit us Nov. 2.”
Gustavo Gomez with Downtown Pasco Development Authority similarly explained to local television stations KNDO/KNDU that The Day of the Dead traditionally involves making the favorite foods of the deceased person with the belief that they will return to enjoy it.
“We invite them to be part of our home on those days,” he said. “It is like a get together with them even though they are not around.”
“You go to the cemetery. You make the place look really pretty. You clean where your love ones are resting. There you can even play music, songs or you can bring food, especially the food that they loved when they were alive. It is believed that they will come and taste the food,” Gustavo claimed.
In Albertville, Alabama, one bakery is making pan de muerto in celebration of the Day of the Dead. It is topped with a figurine to represent the soul.
“The figurine comes to manifest itself at this time as a tradition of the Day of the Dead,” Eduardo Venegas, manager of the Guelaguetza Bakery, told WAAY-TV.
Festivals and parades are also a part of the Day of the Dead celebration, with much music, dancing and eating.
While gatherings are canceled this year, many still plan on erecting altars around the community or in their homes. The Chicago Tribune interviewed several families who have created ofrendas after losing a loved one to COVID.
“It’s a reminder of how fragile life is,” said Camila Del Carmen De La O. “But it also keeps the hope alive because we will never forget them, and maybe we will see them again one day.”
One woman in Austin, Texas explained that her ofrenda centers on her mother and some television actors that she appreciated.
“I’ve sourced all of my items for the altar from my family home,” Mel Lopez told CBS Austin. “The photos, the statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe, even the table cover all come from my mom’s house.”
“All these Simpsons characters like Edna Krabappel, Maude Flanders, Troy McClure have passed away on the TV show. I loved watching that show growing up and felt like I needed to honor them too,” she stated. “You don’t have to be religious to do this. You just have to honor your beloved.”
Colossians 2:8 reads, “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.”