"Day of the Dead" altar

This "Day of the Dead" altar was constructed by students in two of Pam Frese's anthropology classes (Contemporary U.S. Culture, and Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion) at The College of Wooster.


‘Day of the Dead’ Celebration Provides Experiential Learning Opportunity

Annual tribute to the dearly departed encourages new way of thinking

November 5, 2012 by John Finn

WOOSTER, Ohio — The souls of the dearly departed “passed through” Wooster earlier this month and provided an experiential learning opportunity in the process as The College of Wooster hosted its 10th Day of the Dead celebration.

Pam Frese, professor of sociology and anthropology, and students in two of her classes (Contemporary U.S. Culture, and Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion) marked the occasion with the construction of an elaborate altar in Kauke Hall’s Old Main.

Day of the Dead, a Mexican custom, has become increasingly popular in the United States, while Halloween, a Euro-American institution, has gradually migrated to Mexico. “An interesting cross-cultural exchange is taking place,” said Frese. “More Americans are participating in Day of the Dead, and more Mexicans are celebrating Halloween.”

Once again this year, the event gave students a new perspective on how cultures elsewhere may view death and how the dead are both mourned and celebrated. “It really hit home that people all across the world might view death differently,” said Dominic Piacentini, a sophomore in Frese’s Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion class. “Day of the Dead celebrates loved ones who have died and the life they lived. It's a time when you can reflect back on the relationship you had with that person. Participation in the altar reminded me that the relationship isn't gone. While their body might (not) be (present), the memories I have of them and the experiences we shared continue to exist.”

Students, faculty, staff, and members of the community honored the memory of loved ones by setting up an ofrenda (Spanish for offering) with photos and other mementos to represent the life of the deceased. According to Mexican belief, spirits visit these altars to rest and enjoy the food set out for them as they journey from purgatory to heaven. The tradition is closely tied to the Christian rituals of All-Souls and All-Saints Day.

Two of Frese’s students, sophomore Jennifer Caventer and senior Jessica Wingen, said that experiencing the celebration was much different than learning about it in a classroom because as a participant one can understand the emotional aspect first-hand. “There is a great feeling that comes over you when you sit at the altar and experience it for yourself,” said Caventer. “To see all of the things that people left to celebrate their ancestors, it is an overwhelming feeling.”

Wingen added, “Professor Frese emphasizes participant observation and 'experiential anthropology' in her courses. Instead of simply reading about a cultural practice, students are called on to participate so they can understand the ritual on a more personal level. Participating in Day of the Dead helped me more fully understand the emotions that a person who regularly participates in these rituals experiences.”

- Written by Libby Fackler