19/10/2015 12:42 BST | Updated 15/10/2016 06:12 BST

Dia de Los Muertos, Mexico ~ Altars and Altering Perceptions on Death

This time three years ago, I had three grandparents that were alive and reasonably well. This summer, I said 'Goodbye' to my final surviving grandparent, who was also the one I considered myself closest to. I felt quietly akin to my grandfather in a way which is absent from the remaining members of my family. Since his passing four months ago, I have thought about him daily. Thinking about him gives me an added strength and confidence to the confidence and strength that he nurtured within me during his life. Whilst I say I felt close to him, it is more in the sense of heart, spirit and mind, since for the last decade, I have lived in Mexico whilst he lived in England.


This year will be the eleventh 'Dia de los Muertos' that I have experienced in Mexico. This festival, which honours the dead on the first two days of November, held me captive the very first time I witnessed it. I was attracted not only to the bold imagery offered but also to the spirit of remembering the dead in a respectfully celebratory manner. Marigolds and brightly coloured tissue-paper, papel picado, border altars dedicated to the dead, artfully constructed using dry beans, rice, chilies and dyed sawdust. Or more simply frame photos of loved ones no longer on this plane who are regaled with gifts of plates of favoured food and drink (quite often tequila is presented).


Decorated sugar skulls can be found alongside ostentatiously dressed skeleton forms, papier-mâché figures can portray a scene of political injustice whilst a skull fashioned from twigs can ground thoughts back to nature. Whole cemeteries blossom as graves are dressed.

The spirits of family members, loved ones departed, are invited to visit the altar dedicated to them. As velas are lit and the candlelight brings a soft warmth to the chill of the November air, the altars appear to breathe with the flickering of the flames.


"Esta muerto", the use of one verb to describe being somewhere, on another plane, as opposed to "es muerto", to describe a more permanent state. One simple choice of word can bring about a deep understanding of an entire culture's relationship with death. After more than a decade of living within this culture, surely it must have had its influence on my personal relationship with death.

I grew up as a Sikh, and possibly still believe in the idea of reincarnation. I definitely believe that a person's energy moves on elsewhere.

Last year, when my grandfather finally lost his wife, having already lost much of her to Alzheimer's, he consoled me. Being thousands of miles away from the core of the family, from him, I was not able to join them to grieve collectively. "Be brave", he said to me, "you are alone but from this day I will try and be two grandparents for you."

In the months that lead to 'Dia de los Muertos', I decided that I would not be remembering my grandmother by fashioning an altar in her honour. Since, in my mind, there is more power in this life than I can comprehend, I preferred to let my grandmother literally 'Rest In Peace' rather than invite her to visit her altar, perhaps pulling something of her spirit from a new form. Altar building does not come naturally to me.

However... I have three children who are Mexican born. The two eldest, 5-year-old twin boys, had shown such fascination with the altars they had seen over the past three years. At home, they went to town gathering small toys, ribbons, furniture and creating sizable pieces of art, calling them altars, though they were not "in honour" of anyone or anything.


When their great-grandmother died, they also consoled me. Asking questions, I gave a basic explanation of "running out" of compatible energy with the body, and that energy moving onto something else, perhaps being born again to another body. Taking on this idea, they themselves said that they thought her energy had moved on to a bird. That my Big Mum was now a bird and I need only to look up to the skies to see her.

Last year, they were both so caught up in the visual splendor on display during the 'Day of the Dead' festival, that neither one had realised they now knew of someone who had died in their own family. Not until the day the altars were taken down, did they mention the idea of building one for our own family.


This year, like the last, I have no intention of crafting an altar. If the children choose to get creative, I will support them. I will certainly take pleasure in admiring all the labours of love that will grace our town, and I expect that I will view them a little differently this year, as I carry the loss and love for my own dear ones.

And, well, perhaps in writing this, I am 'making an altar' dedicated to my grandfather, after all.

Karam Singh Sahota

January 2nd 1927 - June 30th 2015

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