Day of the Dead Activity: Create a Dia de Los Muertos Memory Box
I’m not a fan of cemetery visits on the Day of the Dead. They make me weepy and sad. My grand-mother passed away two years ago, but every year since her death, she’s made a guest appearance as a Dia de Los Muertos memory box in our home and our family likes it that way.
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I find that this tradition borrowed from the Mexican Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) commemorates departed ones with such a loving eye that it’s a gentle way to deal with death as a family – without the spooks. In fact, my little girls love being a part of it and enjoy “seeing” their great-grand-mother and decorating her memory box once a year. I call this making a memory box and here is how you can make one too.
What Is a Dia de Los Muertos Memory Box?
On November 1st and 2nd in Mexico, people make altars at home with ofrendas that celebrate everything that reminds them of a deceased family member. Since the Day of the Dead is a big deal in Mexico, Mexican altars are usually elaborate affairs decorated with papel picado (foil), calaveras (sugar skulls), marigold flowers, candles, pictures of the deceased ones, and a selection of the favorite foods and beverages of the person including and not limited to tequila, beer or coffee. The spirits of the dead are expected to pay a holiday visit home and should be provided with an enticing repast and adequate sustenance for the journey.
I made my first memory box after my maternal grand-mother passed away two years ago, inspired by El Dia de Los Muertos celebrated in the Mission, San Francisco. My mother was visiting us in San Francisco for Halloween and I knew she wanted to do something special for her mom so I started looking into it. We needed to collect a few items that we always found around my grand-mother, a photo of her, candles and a few sugar skulls. Ah, and a box as well.
For my grand-mother, I used a wooden wine box that was laying around in our basement (that’s where we store our wine) and covered the inside in foil, taping a photo of her smiling inside. Then I bought sugar skulls and sugar skeleton figurines in Mexican stores in the Mission.
Back at home, we brainstormed with my mom on what my grand-ma was very fond of and added
- cigarettes (she was a chain smoker),
- a bar of dark chocolate, as well as
- battery-operated tea light candles.
- She loved dogs too so one of the sugar figurines was a dog.
That evening we raised a glass of red wine to her (she enjoyed red wine) and set the box up on a cabinet where her smile would grace us for the next few days, celebrating her life – not her death.
How to Make Your Dia de Los Muertos Memory Box
This simple list will get you started on creating your own memory box and showing that even though some of our loved ones are not with us anymore, they’re still in our hearts.
- Find a box that will be big enough to hold all you want to display. I used a wooden box but a big shoe box would work as well, or a large tin cookie box without the lid. Set the box on its narrow side so it’s standing.
- Decorate the inside of the box with papel picado (perforated Mexican paper) for Mexican flair. You can buy it already made or you can make your own with your kids. It’s a cool rainy day art project. If you are short on time, you can use foil (as I did).
- Decorate the bottom of the box with a few flowers the person liked.
- You can make sugar skulls using a mould at home or buy them already made. Here’s an online resource to buy them if you don’t have Mexican stores in your area.
- Print a nice photo of the person you are commemorating.
- Customize the box with items you identify with the person. Cuttings from the gardens of friends, a favorite book, newspaper clippings, a music CD, jewelry, the photo of a favorite vacationing spot – the offering may also include a pack of cigarettes for the after-dinner enjoyment of former smokers, or a selection of toys and extra sweets for deceased children.
- Set a few candles around the box. A lot of Mexican altars use real wax candles but with children in the house, battery-operated candles are much safer.
Now you can spend the evening telling your children stories about the person so that they grow up knowing who the person was and why you care so much about keeping the memory alive.