Build an Altar for Dia de los Muertos

Our family has a tradition on Dia de los Muertos. We drive to the festival in downtown San Antonio – a celebration of life through music, food, dance and, of course, death. Especially memorable are the elaborate altars.

Last year, fresh on the heels of Robin Williams’ suicide, local art students assembled a memorial to him. The colorful elements were stunning. You could stand Dia de los Muertosthere and recall the many ways Williams’ comic genius enriched our lives.

Day of the Dead altars transcend mere tombstones inscribed with epitaphs. The art of these paeans is found in the juxtaposition of exquisite details. One woman honored her grandfather, a luchador in Mexico. Alongside intimate family items and photos were antique posters announcing his fights.

As you stand before these tributes, your eyes linger over artifacts and images lovingly arranged. Then it happens: they conjure the presence of ancestors as Day of the Dead resurrects its ghosts.

I was once the senior pastor of a large congregation. On All Saints Sunday, we honored those who had passed into the “communion of saints” during the previous year. Someone slowly read their names. At regular intervals, our tower bell rang out, evoking both the presence of those loved ones and John Donne’s immortal words:

Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

Here’s a suggestion. This Dia de los Muertos, build an altar to a loved one. If you want to make a physical shrine, more power to you. It can be just as meaningful to share detailed memories around the dinner table or over coffee.

I’m building an emotional/spiritual memorial to my paternal grandfather, Kryne Van Tatenhove. My children never knew him, so I want them to hear these memories.

  • Voyaging with his mother from the Netherlands to the U.S., arriving by ship at Ellis Island in 1902.
  • His prowess as a fastball pitcher. But since many games occurred on Sundays, his Dutch Reformed parents forbade his involvement, holding him back from agrandpa possible professional career.
  • His marriage to my grandmother, their wedding photo showing his tall, handsome countenance, complete with a Clark Gable moustache. (Photo of Golden Anniversary to right).
  • His sixth grade education.
  • His struggles to provide for a wife, six boys, one daughter (lost in infancy) during the Depression. This included a failed dairy farm, the herd tragically lost to brucellosis.
  • His late-life move from Wisconsin to California, where he labored as a gardener, hauling tools in a trailer behind his truck.
  • His tearful conversion at a Billy Graham Crusade in the mid-1950s, an experience that forever changed him.
  • His tall, raw-boned stature. When we shook, my hand disappeared into his as if enfolded in a catcher’s mitt.
  • His retirement to a mobile home park outside Palm Springs. There, he built a rock fence surrounding their double-wide. He crowned it with a heart-shaped stone hauled out of the desert, a tribute to my Grandma.
  • His quiet, stoic demeanor. He NEVER complained about his lot in life.
  • His death on Christmas Eve, 1978.

To my Grandpa, and to your loved ones, I lift these simple words found in the Roman catacombs: Mayst thou live eternally among the saints!

And…may you also live in our memories!

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