In a Franklin Park greenhouse, 500 pots of marigolds have been carefully tended by city horticulturists since the end of August. On Thursday and Friday, they will decorate an altar, or “ofrenda,” in Copley Square during Boston’s first official observance of the Day of the Dead.
The pre-Hispanic tradition, known in Spanish as “Dia de los Muertos,” is celebrated across Mexico and beyond with parades as families honor their ancestors by creating altars with their favorite food and drink, lighting candles, playing music, and displaying their images — an invitation to these souls to return and linger briefly among the living.
“Day of the Dead opens up the dimension of being able to communicate with the spirit of not only individuals who have passed away,” said David Carrasco, Neil L. Rudenstine professor of the study of Latin America at Harvard Divinity School, “but what I call ‘convivencia,’ which means you’re living together in a family, nurturing each other in a family — even the family that has passed on to the other side.”
The scent of the pungent marigold blossoms, known as “flor de muerte” in Spanish, or “flower of the dead,” is said to guide the spirits home.
Hosting Boston’s own Day of the Dead celebration was the idea of Emilio Rabasa, consul general of Mexico in Boston. He approached Heidi Schork, the director of the mayor’s mural crew, last year.
That led to the city’s parks and recreation department growing the off-season flowers, which are in season in Mexico. The consulate ordered sugar skulls, the traditional Mexican folk art for the Day of the Dead, from Mexico. The city collected frames in which to place photographs from the Boston Centers for Youth & Families and Goodwill. The mayor’s office of new urban mechanics put together a website, and Schork’s assistant has been making “papel picado,” traditional cut-paper banners used to decorate for the holiday.
“We don’t really celebrate Day of the Dead in the United States,” Schork said. “It’s a very beautiful Mexican holiday. Not a lot of people understand that the real meaning of it is memory.”
For several weeks, city officials have collected more than 100 photos that people have submitted online to a Tumblr account set up for the event (diademuertosboston.tumblr.com). There are vintage black-and-white and sepia-toned images, as well as newer color photos, of late family members, friends, and loved ones, along with small snippets about their lives.
“This is my father, Raúl Mariscal,” one caption read. “He was taken from us suddenly, unexpected. He was a very hard-working man with a great love for our Mother Nature. He loved his apple orchards. He was a good person with a great sense of humor. Un beso hasta el cielo papi [a kiss to the sky, daddy].”
“I cherished the time I was blessed to spend with you both, you were great protectors while on earth, and your love is still felt even from the other side. Love you Mommy, love you uncle Ross,” read another.
“This is my grandfather Antoine Abouzeid, he was an incredible man with so much love for his family,” read a third. “His wish was to just enjoy his life and for all of his family to be happy and loved. We love you and miss you everyday baba.”
The photos honored the lives of people from a variety of backgrounds and ethnicities, all of whom were being remembered with love.
“Who are the ancestors that are being invited back? Not just Mexicans,” Carrasco said. “The Mexican Day of the Dead is inclusive . . . anybody can come.”
In Cambridge, there are two temporary Day of the Dead altars at the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology on display throughout the month of November. Carrasco’s students contribute artwork to an altar museum staff created, which honors missing and murdered indigenous women from the Americas and Canada. The other altar was built by fifth-graders from the Rafael Hernández Two-Way Bilingual School and includes poems by the kids.
The Copley altar can be seen between noon and 9 p.m. Nov. 1 and 2. The altar’s inauguration is Friday at 5:30 p.m.
“In Boston, when we had our own personal tragedy during the Marathon bombing, hundreds of people went down to Copley Square and just spontaneously made what is an altar with flowers and candles and things like that,” Schork said. “It really helps people process sadness.”