The Grackle

Observations, Reflections and Miscellany from the Wacoan

Celebrating Life by Embracing Death

Cemetery celebration remembers departed loved ones with altar, art exhibit and contemplative walk for Día de los Muertos Nov. 2

6 months ago

By Susan Bean Aycock

There’s a new way to celebrate Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) this year in Waco with the addition of authentically marking the beloved Hispanic holiday in the actual cemetery as it is in Latin America, where the holiday originated in ancient Mesoamerica to honor the dead.

Waco Memorial Park and Funeral Home, along with Creative Waco, is presenting a community ofrenda (offering altar) and exhibit of “Las Catrinas de Rivera” by locally based international artist Jesús Rivera, both through Nov. 2, and a service with candlelight memorial walk and family activities on the actual holiday, Thursday, Nov. 2.

Juan Valdivia, family services counselor for Waco Memorial Cemetery and organizer of the park’s first Muertos event. Photo by Susan Bean Aycock

Día de los Muertos is a spiritual — though not specifically religious — holiday that was celebrated by the Aztec, Maya and Toltec people of Mesoamerica, thousands of years before Spanish conquistadors invaded and fused it with Catholicism to make the holiday coincide with All Saints and All Souls days. For these pre-Hispanic cultures, who considered mourning the dead disrespectful, death was simply a natural phase in life’s long continuum.

“To me, Día de los Muertos represents the idea of duality; the duality of life and death,” said Eric Linares, special events program manager for Creative Waco and designer of the altar. “You can’t have life without death, and death is ever-present even in life. We recognize the beauty of the moments we’ve shared with loved ones who have passed on.”

An altar ofrenda is traditionally put up in homes, businesses and public places across Mexico and Latin America a week or so before the holiday, which honors departed loved ones and is a time of joyous remembrance for families.

Contrary to the anglicized version of the word, the altar is not for praying to or worshiping departed ones but is a physical and symbolic representation of sacred connections with those no longer with us. Once celebrated by indigenous Hispanics in the belief that the deceased are allowed to make the trip back to this world once a year, an altar is now more of a symbol of giving gratitude for them and their impact on our lives.

A traditional ofrenda, including the cemetery’s, has several commonalities that include the elements of:

Water — So the spirits can quench their thirst, usually represented by a glass or pitcher of water

Wind — Often represented by papel picado, intricately pierced paper banners that dance in the breeze over Mexican streets on holidays

Earth — Symbolized by food, often the sweet bread pan de Muertos, fruit or chocolate

Fire — Candles providing light so the spirits can find their way home

The ofrenda for beloved departed pets at the cemetery office. Photo by Susan Bean Aycock

Other traditional elements include an arch over the ofrenda, symbolizing the passageway between life and death; salt, a symbol of purification and to season food offerings; flowers, most often marigolds [cempasúchil (simp-ah-soo’-cheel)], leading the spirits home with their bright colors and pungent scent; and brightly colored sugar skulls, representing not only defuntos [the departed] but not so subtly hinting that death can indeed be sweet. Three levels of the altar represent the underworld, life and earth, and the hereafter.

The idea to hold a formal celebration at the cemetery came from Family Services Counselor Juan Valdivia, who has held the position since March and right away knew he wanted to celebrate the holiday with public participation as he did where he grew up in California, with traditions kept by his Mexican mother.

“An altar is a way of honoring the past with pictures of our loved ones who have passed away; there’s a story behind every picture,” said Valdivia. “I have a photo of my older brother Joseph Cobb on the altar now; he passed away suddenly when I was a third-year law student. He was more of a father figure to me than a brother and laid down the foundation of who I am today. I quit pursuing law as a career and started mortuary school ­— trying to understand his death is why I’m in this field. Telling my story with him to the families I sit down with is a way to keep his memory alive.”

Valdivia’s mother, Angelbertha Cobb, instilled in her 19 children a deep respect for Día de los Muertos and instigated community celebrations 50 years ago in Sacramento, California, where she still lives. However, she’ll be traveling to Waco to be part of the cemetery celebration by sharing her memories and the meaning of the holiday at the beginning of the formal service on November 2.

Another facet of the cemetery celebration is the exhibit “Las Catrinas de Rivera,” featuring paintings and 3D art by international artist Jesús Rivera, who has made Waco his home for the past 20 years after growing up and being educated in Mexico.

The iconic La Catrina, whose enigmatic smile on a skeleton face hints at the mysticism of death, was originally artistic satire by Mexican artists José Guadalupe Posada and Diego Rivera on upper-class Mexicans who idealized European dress in the early 1900s. She has since become a popular representation of the stylized, elegant vibe of Muertos wear, but to artist Rivera, La Catrina is much more.

“La Catrina for me symbolizes a form of dealing with life,” said Rivera. “My paintings of her represent to me the story behind everything that we do — with love. I was painting one when I heard of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and in the middle of painting, I changed her face to be crying. La Catrina is a symbol of connection at many different spiritual levels.” Rivera, whose work has been exhibited around the world, has studied art in Mexico, Spain and Italy; his canvas paintings styled as scrolls are a technique learned in Florence last winter.

The public is encouraged to bring photos of departed loved ones (or pets) or small mementos to place on the ofrenda at Waco Memorial Cemetery through November 2; hours are 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 9 a.m.–6 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 12–5 p.m. Sunday. Rivera’s “Las Catrinas” exhibition is open at the same hours in the same building, the cemetery offices.

“We create space for remembrance of our loved ones, to bring them offerings for those moments of remembrance,” said cemetery altar designer Linares. “My altar [exhibition] at the Mayborn [Museum Complex of Baylor University] is more of an artistic representation of history, and this one is more like a home altar.”

A Día de los Muertos celebration will be held at the cemetery beginning at 5 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2, with commentary by Angelbertha Cobb; a service led by a local priest; and a contemplative candlelight walk through the cemetery, with the procession led by patrol cars of the Waco Police Department’s Unidos Division, a unit created this past March to interface positively with the Hispanic Community. Mariachi music, children’s activities and food trucks will be on hand for the family-oriented celebration with Spanish-speaking personnel available.

For those involved in planning Waco’s first Muertos celebration in a cemetery, it isn’t about marketing an increasingly popular holiday — that has spread from Mexico and Latin America to around the world — or capitalizing on its many stunning visuals such as painted faces and colorful sugar skulls. It’s about family, celebrating life while acknowledging death, and most of all, the shared heart and ancestry of humanity.

“I want to touch people’s souls through my art,” said artist Rivera. “I paint with my heart.”

Locally based international artist Jesús Rivera, creator of the “Catrinas de Rivera” exhibit. Photo by Susan Bean Aycock

Said event organizer Valdivia, “In the celebration of Día de los Muertos, we see the whole picture of life and death. Acknowledging that can change lives.”

No advance reservations are necessary to bring offerings to the ofrenda, see the art exhibit or attend the Nov. 2 service and celebration. Candles will be provided for the contemplative walk. For more information, contact Waco Memorial Cemetery at 254-662-1051 or email Juan Valdivia at

Waco Memorial Funeral Home and Memorial Park is located at 6623 S. I-35. When you enter the cemetery gate, turn left for the park offices where the altar and art exhibition are located.