Set amid candles, sugar skulls and a cross made from twigs, the faces of a dozen departed souls look back from the altar: a dark-eyed girl at age 5, a stone-faced Confederate soldier, a Colombian man in a beard and baseball cap.
The girl is a childhood portrait of Margarita Salamanca, who took her own life 11 years ago.
The soldier is William Sharpe Barnes, a lieutenant who survived the Civil War to old age.
And the Colombian man is named Carlos, killed by guerillas in his home country.
Nothing in the world unites them except that someone in Raleigh still carries a torch, and as the Day of the Dead approaches, left a trinket out as tribute.
“It gave me the perfect place to mourn my sister,” said Angela Salamanca, 38, who left Margarita’s framed picture. “She was my best friend.”
What is probably Wake County’s only public Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) altar now stands in Oakwood Cemetery, a colorful invitation to celebrate a favorite spirit.
Five feet high, topped with pumpkins and a black skull, it stops cars in a graveyard already known for its lively handling of the dead. Joggers pause. Photographers click shutters. Raleigh adopts a Mexican holiday.
“I put a little sign up in case people say, ‘What the heck is this?’ ” said Robin Simonton, Oakwood’s executive director.
The three-day holiday traditionally begins Oct. 31 with All Hallows Eve, when children make their altars to invite young spirits, or angelitos, to visit. It follows with All Saints Day, when the grown spirits return, then finishes on All Souls Day when family tombs are decorated.
The idea is to draw spirits back to Earth, and the skulls, the marigolds, the candles, the tissue paper creations, the photographs, the incense and the candies are offered as incentive for the dead to reunite. Here, the grave becomes animated with skeletons playing guitars, riding bicycles, sporting tuxedos and wedding gowns — a playful union between being and decay.
“For me, it’s a really good opportunity to talk about death in another light,” Salamanca said, “to celebrate the people who have died instead of keeping it hush-hush under the table. We should talk about it. It’s sort of like a ritual for me to put this together.”
She organized the first altar six years ago at her restaurant, Centro on South Wilmington Street. A native of Colombia, she had never observed the holiday. But much of her kitchen staff came from Mexico, and they taught her. Each year, she took more ownership, adding more trimmings, until this year she moved it to Oakwood as part of the Day of the Dead 5K, which benefits the Brentwood Boys & Girls Club.
She placed her sister’s picture in the open air, next to her cousin Carlos and her friend Hellore – a woman named for the word “hello” who died young in a bicycle accident.
A teacher and ardent Civil War buff in Germany saw a picture of the altar on the cemetery’s Facebook post. For the past year, she’d been homing in on a single Civil War family for a research project, and she decided on William Barnes from Wilson County, who served in the 4th N.C. Infantry and lost his older brother, Jesse.
Barnes lived to an old age, dying in 1924, taking his rest in the heart of Oakwood. When she saw the Facebook post, Katharina Schlichtherle sent the soldier’s picture.
“He represents so many other soldiers of that war,” she wrote from Germany Wednesday. “They were heartbreakingly young, went through experiences none of us want to ever have, and returned to civilian life as productive members of society, doing their share for their families and communities. And so very many of those who were plain soldiers or minor officers without any great exploits to their name have been forgotten.”
I invite you to add your own offering. I added my Chihuahua’s picture last night and hope she will visit: a much-missed ankle biter from the beyond.