Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery is celebrating the centuries-old Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos this year with a large-scale community ofrenda, or altar, dedicated to New York’s victims of COVID-19.
Visitors to the altar, which is located in Green-Wood’s newly-renovated historic chapel, are encouraged to light votive candles in memory of loved ones lost to the pandemic. Things enjoyed by the loved one in life—favorite flowers, foods, alcohol, personal trinkets—as well as notes and photographs from friends and family members are placed by the votive candles and left as offerings for the dead.
For the artist, Dominican-born Scherezade Garcia, the ofrenda represents an opportunity to gather as a community and mourn those we have lost. “One thing that has been so hard about this pandemic is that people haven’t been able to say goodbye properly,” said Garcia.
Garcia hopes that the altar provides a safe and socially-distanced ritual for Brooklyn’s grieving community, as well as offers a more hopeful approach to death. Garcia points out that Dia de los Muertos is celebrated differently across various regions of Mexico and in the United States, but it is unified by its celebration for the lives who have been lost.
“We’re mourning, but we’re also saying ‘I’m so happy, because I remember your life and you lived well’,” Garcia said.
The message of the ofrenda has resonated with many New Yorkers. So many, in fact, that they’ve already run out of candles. “We thought 300 candles would be more than enough,” Garcia said. But by October 27, Garcia had to order 300 more.
Harry Weil, Green-Wood’s director of public programs and special projects, is thrilled with the community’s reception. “We can’t all be in the same room together, but we can mourn together,” Weil said. “And we can go beyond mourning to celebrate the lives that we’ve lost.”
Part of that celebration for Garcia includes creating something beautiful in the face of tragedy. Her altar, a paper sculpture in the Mexican tradition papel picado, or perforated paper, is painted with lush colors. A cinnamon-colored Statue of Liberty replaces the traditional image of the Virgin Mary in Garcia’s altar, which Garcia feels is a more representative patron saint of New Yorkers.
“I want people to understand that beauty brings hope,” Garcia said. “That’s how I can contribute, by providing beauty.”