Day of the Dead celebrated at county museum

Christine Stephenson/The Herald
A community altar is displayed at the Dubois County Museum for the Day of the Dead, which is celebrated from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2. The altar, which welcomes the souls of deceased loved ones, features colorful decorations and items representing the four elements: water, earth, wind and fire.


JASPER — A deck of cards. A paint palette. A tub of circus peanuts.

Altars displayed for the Day of the Dead celebration Monday at the Dubois County Museum were decorated with items associated with loved ones who have passed away.

The Day of the Dead, or Día de Los Muertos, is a tradition in Mexico and some parts of Central America that honors deceased loved ones. The holiday, which runs from Oct. 31 through Nov. 2, is a fusion of Indigenous, African and Spanish cultures. Throughout the years, the tradition has extended to Latinos living in the U.S. and become an important part of communities across the country.

The most widespread tradition is the offering of food, drink and gifts to the dead, which are all placed on an altar. At the Dubois County Museum, altars were set up by different organizations, such as the Sisters of St. Benedict, Southridge’s Latino Advocacy Group and the Association of Latin Americans in Southern Indiana, or ALASI. They featured more traditional aspects, such as crucifixes and photos of the deceased loved ones, but also had personalized items to welcome the dead.

The celebration Monday also featured a large community altar, which was about three times the size of the other altars. The altar, which was built using grant funding, features photos of all kinds of members of the Dubois County community and traditional items such as sugar skulls, marigold flowers and candles.

The Dubois County Museum recently received a grant to increase cultural connections between Latinos and Anglos in the county. With the grant, the first Day of the Dead celebration at the museum was held with the help of several area organizations, two school corporations, Vincennes University Jasper and others.

The celebration Monday also included a presentation from Dr. Manuel Apodaca Valdez, an associate professor of Spanish at the University of Southern Indiana. About 35 people gathered to listen and learn about the holiday and its cultural significance.

The Day of the Dead is a bittersweet time, Valdez said, because it is surrounded by grief but also hope. The altars show respect to the deceased loved ones and protect them, he said, and they help the living remember that death is not something to be feared but rather a transition to life elsewhere.

“I’m happy you put your family members on the altar,” he said, gesturing toward the community altar at the museum, “because they are protected. They are protected, believe me.”

Traditionally, people start to prepare on Oct. 31 to receive the souls of their loved ones. On Nov. 1, the souls of the children arrive. On Nov. 2, the souls of the adults follow. The tradition is important for honoring the dead but is also a way for the living to celebrate their culture.

“The Day of the Dead is something that we cherish,” Valdez said. “It’s … something unique that identifies Hispanic people wherever they go. Here in America … the Latinx people need to find some way of identifying themselves and find ways to reinforce that identity.”

At night, families gather in cemeteries around the tombs of their loved ones, which have been cleaned or repainted, and pray for their eternal rest. For Valdez, this means going to the cemetery and visiting with his father to show him respect.

Valdez said that learning about the holiday is a good way to bridge cultural gaps between Latinos and Anglos because it centers on the shared grief for those who have died and the common belief that the soul continues to live after it leaves earth.

More on