CLINTON TOWNSHIP — The M&Ms Macomb Community College professor Gary Flemming placed on the floor of the school’s Lorenzo Cultural Center served a purpose.
He set the brightly-colored candy down so his late friend John Findley could easily find the Day of the Dead tribute the professor made in his honor.
“They will light the way to the altar,” the international studies and Latin American culture instructor told the crowd who attended his presentation “An Altar For A Friend” Oct. 30.
The altar was one of several created for a number of Day of the Dead events held Oct. 30-Nov. 3 at the Lorenzo Cultural Center on the MCC Center Campus. MCC partnered with the Mexican Consulate of Detroit to celebrate the festive holiday.
Generally celebrated Nov. 1-2 in Mexico, with variations of it observed in other Latin American countries and other parts of the world, Day of the Dead celebrates the lives of loved ones who have passed away. It coincides with the Catholic observances of All Saints Day Nov. 1 and All Souls Day Nov. 2.
A large part of the celebration is the creation of an altar, also known as an “ofrenda,” that features momentos the departed person loved, including favorite foods and personal items. Candles, sugar skulls and paper also are a staple. The Mayan and Aztec cultures began the tradition, Flemming said.
“They believe the important world is the world of the other side, not this side,” Flemming said. “(The loved one) is coming back. They are on the other side. They are merely returning.”
Those who celebrate Day of the Dead believe their lost loved ones can see, from the other side, the ornate altars made in their honor. Altar makers always include vivid marigold flowers believing their brightness lights up the items for easy viewing by the deceased.
“The Day of the Dead is moving into the Inca world of Peru and Ecuador and to Brazil,” Flemming said. “It’s becoming part of American (culture) especially in California and Texas. It’s now in the Carribbean world, too.”
During the presenation, Flemming displayed several personal items that celebrated Findley’s life. The emergency room doctor of Kansas City, Mo., passed away 12 years ago from cancer. Flemming — who told several stories behind the altar items — and Findley first met as locker partners at the former Guest Junior High School in Roseville.
A CD by the J. Geils Band, chocolate, coffee, a “The Lord of the Rings” paperback book, religious statues, a doll made from dryer lint, a skeletal figure with hair and a chicken bone attached, and a skeletal figure carrying water were among the many items on Findley’s altar. Many figures were females because, according to Flemming, Findley was popluar with the ladies.
Flemming said if you don’t have an actual item of a loved one you can use a representation. He did with many of Findley’s items, including a marachi band figurine.
“John was a gifted musician. He played the trombone.”
Some of Flemming’s artifacts came from Mexico and American towns.
“Tamales are a traditional food that goes on the grave,” the professor said placing those down. “Sugar is also supposed to be on the table.”
Flemming also included Jiffy muffin mix because he and Findley used it often in their University of Michigan college days because it was “cheap” and they could afford it. He also made sure to place a can of chili down because Findley “loved hot stuff.”
Although Findley was not a religious person, Flemming believes his dear friend would still be touched by the altar. “I love you, too,” is what Flemming believes Findley would say about the professor’s tribute.
“I thought it was excellent,” retired Royal Oak Schools teacher Linda Flynn said of Flemming’s presentation. While the 65-year-old Sterling Heights resident was familiar with Day of the Dead, “This was so much more insightful. You learn from the historic and humanistic points of view. It reflects a wonderful celebration. You set a beautiful (altar) in order for them to come back.”
Flynn regularly attends cultural center events and is eligible to earn credit towards the college’s Macomb Multicultural International Inititative. The MMII is open to students and nonstudents, and most of the events are free.
“It’s a college-wide initiative to promote diversity and cross-cultural understanding,” said Meghan Mott, Lorenzo Cultural Center program coordinator. “It brings to light different ways to think about our world. You can earn a non-credit certificate issued by Macomb. It’s 20 contact hours. You can get three sets of 20 hours and get up to 60 hours.”
For more information on the Macomb Multicultural International Inititative, visit www.macomb.edu/MMII.
Schedule of Events:
The following Day of the Dead events are scheduled at the Lorenzo Cultural Center, located at Hall and Garfield roads:
The film “Food for the Ancestors” that features Day of the Dead celebrations in Puebla, Mexico, from 2-3 p.m. Nov. 3;
MCC culinary arts instructor Scott O’Farrell will showcase the making of tamales from 2-3 p.m. Oct. 31;
The film “Las Momias: The Accidental Mummies of Guanajuato” from 1-2 p.m. Nov. 2. The movie shows the range of customs surrounding death in Mexico, from pre-Columbian times through today. Mary Meier, Macomb professor of anthropology and archeology, will facilitate a questioin-and-answer following the film.
Attendees also can check out photographs by Michigan journalist and writer Jerry Morton featuring images taken in Mexico, from small towns to Mexico City, during Day of the Dead celebrations.
All events are free, but preregistration is required by calling (586) 445-7348 or online at www.LorenzoCulturalCenter.com.
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