Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Day of the Dead

2012 Day of the Dead Ofrenda outside Oxnam Chapel
2012 Day of the Dead Ofrenda outside Oxnam Chapel
This past week, it has seemed that I am surrounded by death. None of the dead are my own loved ones, but rather people close to people I know – my dearest friend’s father, a student’s husband, a colleague’s grandfather, another colleague’s dear friend. So much death, so much love, so much grief. And so it seemed fitting that yesterday Amy and I went to the narthex of Oxnam Chapel to build the ofrenda for this year’s observance of the Day of the Dead.

As we covered an ordinary folding table with black and purple vestments; stacked open-fronted boxes to serve as niches for photographs and mementos; arranged paper flowers, electric candles, feathers, and calaveras; and set out offerings of bread and salt, I remembered doing the same thing last year at this time. Most of the objects we had gathered were the same as the ones we used before, but some were missing and others were newly offered – a life-sized Halloween skull covered with glitter, two large vases of silk flowers, and I’m not sure what else.

Last year's ofrenda
Building the ofrenda is both art-making and ritual activity, responding to the changes in ourselves, in the materials, and in the community with decisions that are both aesthetic and charged with meaning. Does the purple cloth go over the black one, or the other way around? Does this element go here or there? This space looks a little empty, shall we move this object a few inches to the right or that one to the left? As artists, our eyes are trained to look for balance, harmony, that elusive rightness that says a work is finished. As people of faith, creating a space for communal ritual, our hearts are trained to leave open spaces that others will fill in, to trust that the changes that others will make to our own collaborative effort will make it fuller, richer, more meaningful.

This year’s ofrenda is different from last year’s, and from the one that might appear next year in the same space. It is a temporary, collaborative artwork that marks a particular moment in time; a ritual space for remembering those who have died in the last year or two; and an offering into the life of the ongoing yet always changing community that is Wesley Theological Seminary.

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