As the sprawling celebrations for Día de los Muertos come to a close, I am left slightly spent, and completely smitten, from this holiday that honors death and celebrates life.
With music, parades, special meals and parties starting as early as October 30th and continuing to November 3rd, Dia de los Muertos welcomes the spirits of the ancestors and recently deceased to join them in their homes, the streets and in cemeteries throughout Mexico, and very prominently in Oaxaca.
Every dwelling, including homes and places of business, create an altar for los muertos. Arches made of sugar cane, and covered in marigold blossoms, sugar skulls, sweet breads, beer, plates of food, fruits, copal incense and other offerings, or ofrendas, bedeck the altar; anything that was favored by the deceased can make an appearance, including cigarettes and mezcal.
Small towns around Oaxaca have special nights when the dead come to pay a visit. On the 31st, they visit a pueblo called Xoxochitlan, where the large town cemetery called a panteón becomes a giant festival. Families clean the graves and adorn them with candles, flowers, and other offerings, and bring chairs and picnics, ready to spend the entire night with their deceased loved ones. A sometimes somber, and sometimes raucous affair, with bands playing songs favored by those passed, a hallowed ground usually quiet becomes full of life and light.
There was an aspect of spectatorship, as the beautiful events has drawn people from around Mexico, and the world. But all the locals who I talked to expressed pride in sharing their traditions and were open to discussing the people they were honoring, and happy for you to take photos.
On November 1st, the muertos visit another small town called San Augustín de Etla. The tradition here differs as once dark sets in there is a theatrical performance in the center square, full of inside jokes and slang, in other words, almost impossible to understand. After the play, a large brass band winds its way through the streets and everyone else follows, creating a sort of haphazard parade that stops at homes along the way demanding mezcal or food. Popular costumes included demons and witches and beings covered in bells or mirrors to deflect bad spirits.
All throughout Oaxaca, special meals with families and friends are enjoyed, bands and costumed character parade through the streets and cemeteries become all night parties where entire communities join together to remember those passed.
In all this beauty, tradition, and celebration, the most striking thing to me about this holiday, is the very natural, easy and respectful way of dealing with death. It seems to me in the US we lack this opportunity to think about, discuss and process death and the deceased. Death is often shrouded in fear and grief, a sorrow best stowed away or experienced in private. An entire community honoring the deceased together feels so appropriate and connected. For something that touches everyone, why not share the experience, to feel the support of your community, and experience the relief that ritual celebration offers.