Dia de los Muertos – “I was not forgotten…”

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Please refer to my Day of the Dead Fiesta blog post before reading this…

What can I say, I hate repeating myself.

So, I have honored pets, friends and family members whom have passed before, but 2023 Dia de los Muertos was very different for me.  Hate to start on a bummer note, but my dad died from a Covid-related/Parkinson’s Disease related combo on October 27, 2022.  Obviously, celebrating his life on November 1st and 2nd, 2022 was a bit too soon and we were still in North Carolina sorting out the ugly business of death anyway.

David Laurent Kern aka Dad

As luck would have it, I learned that if you don’t wait for at least a full year after a loved one has died and you summon their souls back to commune with you on Dia de los Muertos, you will fuck up their whole afterlife…crisis averted!!

Also of note, always put a photo of your soul to remember on the altar BUT NEVER IF there are other people in the photo who are still alive! 

Those last two lines have not been officially documented, so much as verbally verified by my Mexican friends whom have been building altars all of their lives.  According to other randos on Reddit, “The superstition is that putting a picture of a living person on an ancestor alter will ‘push’ the living person closer to death.”  EEK.

Not bad for the first official Day of the Dead Altar!

Sorry, I just used those last paragraphs to distract myself from the loss of Dad and why his death changed the significance of Día de los Muertos and especially the altars de ofrendas for me.

My kick ass therapist, who is Mexican and wise as shit had many things to say in our post-Dia de los Muertos session 2 days ago…First and most importantly, Dia de los Muertos is the commemoration of a collective consciousness.  It is the Aztec tradition of ‘ancestor veneration’.

“WTF is veneration?” you ask! I asked too. Veneration is respect or awe inspired by the dignity, wisdom, dedication, or talent of a person (as per Merriam-Webster).

Ancestor veneration is sort of like ancestor worship and is based on love and respect for the deceased as well as to ensure the ancestors’ continued well-being in the afterlife. We already covered all of the history behind why the Pre-Hispanic Mexicans celebrate Dia de los Muertos in the blog post mentioned earlier, but I want to drill down on the significance of altar building and the benefits of communing with those we have lost.

Me and Dad at his 50th birthday and at my wedding. 7 years and several pounds apart!

Let’s start with the meaning of ‘altar’ as per my favorite and yours, Merriam-Webster…”a usually raised structure or place on which sacrifices are offered or incense is burned in worship.”

 “Altar” is from the Latin word ‘altārium’ which means high…In fact, the altar should not only be a raised structure, but should also have several levels with the most recently deceased placed at the highest point of the structure.

This placement represents the level of their journey to Mictlán, the land of the dead.  In my dad’s case, since he was the most recent to pass, his photo should have been at the very top. This is because he has not been journeying as long through the 8 levels of the afterlife as my dog, Deuce and my Grandparents have, let’s say.  In fact, I put his picture on the same level as my dogs, but higher than the photos of my grandparents and friend, Julie….Rookie mistake.

Julie Boerner, my first friend. My mom’s parents. Dad’s parents are not pictured because I couldn’t find a photo without alive people in it!

Here are some things I added to the altar as offerings to draw my people close for the 2 days which is the celebration we call Dia de los Muertos…

1. A sealed bag of 1976 quarters from the Philadelphia U.S.Mint – Dad’s coin collection is massive and he really enjoyed collecting with the secondary hope of it being truly valuable someday. Putting this bag up there surprisingly summoned so many memories of his generosity. I had forgotten how many times he bailed me out of monetary situations especially in college, immediately after I graduated and when I went out into that big, scary, unprofitable working world. I cried tears of gratitude as I mentally rolodexed the long list of examples where he was much more generous than he needed to be.

The coin bag and a silver necklace with Dad’s thumbprint as a charm – gift from the funeral home.

2. Dogs – I had a lot of dogs in my life thanks to my dad’s absolute love of them. Two of my and my husband’s were as much our sons as any human child, so I put pictures of them up there with Dad – on his level!  Although, not technically correct, my therapist assures me that I accidentally scored on this one!

Sooooo, Xolos, which are the Mexican hairless dogs (like Dante in the movie ‘Coco’) are considered the leaders of the afterworld pack, and their little souls lead the human souls to the altars de ofrendas and then back again to Mictlán…Happy Accident – Deuce and Santo were my dad’s guides to meet me here in Mexico City!

Deuce and Santo’s altar vantage points respectively

After this revelation I decided that next year I will add Whiskey, Dad’s last pup which he loved very much.  #sorrywhiskeygirl

3. Salt – In Spanish we say “sal” and evidently ‘sal’ is the base word for ‘salary’ #funfact 🧂

Since salt was so valuable back in the Roman and Aztec times, it was traded as currency.  It really does make life more tasty! Also, salt is considered a purifying substance and the color white represents purity ‘to ensure that the body remains untainted along the journey back to Mictlán.’ 🤷‍♀️

Needless to say, I fucked up and added olives to Dad’s martini thinking they would pass as salt since they are so salty…This was NOT an acceptable substitution as it turns out and I got schooled by my therapist.

Next year, I will still give my dad his olives, but I will cover the salt element with ACTUAL salt!

Of course, I had the other altar essentials such as the Mexican marigold, Pan de Muertos, Papel Picado and candles. I blew off the incense and got schooled again that I really should have leaned into that element more.  #noevilspiritsplease

All in all, for my first altar I didn’t do too bad. One thing I absolutely nailed was the communing part – spending time remembering Dad, Granddaddy and Becca, my dear sweet Julie, MomMom and PopPop and of course my babies, Deuce and Santo Crudo.

The remembering is the key. I spent two full nights just sitting there with my martini toasting these awesome people and animals that I was lucky to have in my life for a short period of time. Too short, of course, but such is life…and death.

So there I was in front of my amazing altar, albeit a semi-incorrect one, just remembering and drinking.  Bad combo usually, but not on November 1st and 2nd.  It wasn’t a bad combo at all. Hanging out with Dad, who of course had his own martini, and me just silently running through all the classic stories. Tears were shed and loud guffaws were burst, just like old times.

Pro Tip from Behind the Scenes: Keep A LOT of Kleenex handy!

I literally heard myself say, “Remember that time when…” and then realizing that no one physically in my realm was going to answer.  But I still felt heard. It felt like I had the same camaraderie as we had at Dad’s funeral after party, when cousins, friends, aunts and uncles would recall stories and we would all laugh. Sure, now I was technically alone, but I did not feel alone at all. My people were with me on the floor in my living room in Mexico City.

The thing that made me sad was knowing that November 3rd, the altar would come down and life would go on until this time next year. It was such a letdown that morning. Sweeping away the marigold petals and putting away the candles and framed photos to where they normally go made me tear up again. 

We had such fun hanging out for a couple of days! BOO! And not the ghost kind of BOO which is cute and fun and scary. It was the dread BOO. Damn the dread. But, gotta go to work and grocery shop and do laundry and all that regular shit. So, until next year, my loves, I have to say goodbye.

How I would like to think Mictlán looks and feels. Courtesy of Disney/Pixar’s Coco!

It is time to watch Disney’s Coco again and hope to God that Disney’s top execs will release Coco 2 already, those rat bastards! It is already produced and in the can, they just haven’t released it – BOO!  Oh well, until then, we have the song from the beloved original movie, ‘Recuerdame’…

“Remember me, though I have to say goodbye

Remember me, don’t let it make you cry.

For even if I’m far away I hold you in my heart

I sing a secret song to you each night that we are apart.

Remember me, though I have to travel far

Remember me, each time you hear a sad guitar…

Know that I’m with you the only way that I can be

Until you’re in my arms again, Remember me.”

Altar de ofrenda essentials
Sugar Skull – an essential element of the altar

Other Dia de los Muertos thoughts from my kick ass therapist:

  1. Sugar skulls – I really didn’t know the significance of them, other than they are easier to purchase than an actual human skull (which in ancient times, the Aztecs would dig up their relatives’ bones, dust them off and place the bones and skulls on the altar too).

After the altars have been dismantled, Mexicans eat sugar skulls like candy or in their coffee! Heads up – they will melt in humidity so if you live in a warm and humid climate, don’t try this at home! Maybe purchase a ceramic skull to represent the “bones” so that your altar doesn’t become a sticky mess!

2. “De mas alla” means ‘from the beyond’.  She assures me that Dad was laughing at my jokes from beyond and that Santo Crudo and Deuce led him back to Mictlán safely. #wortheverypennyoftherapy

And so, “Mi Papi, mi Padre, Dad: hasta la proxima de mas alla!”

Dad throughout the years! May Mictlán serve both martinis AND margaritas!