Rivera’s Night Vigils

At the Blue House we discovered this ink on paper Triptych ’Offering of Dead’ by Diego Rivera (1886-1957). 10.6x 7.8”

Dead French Painters

We were very disappointed that art works by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera held in the private Museo Delores Olmedo in Mexico City were in Paris at the time of our visit. What we did see, apart from Impressionist art works from Paris, was this extraordinary Day of the Dead exhibit. Parisian art scene had been rendered in Mexican style skeletons. Famous artists such as Modigliani, Picasso, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh and others were depicted in tableaus with great creativity and humour.

The Church Adapts

We were interested in the relationship of the Catholic church and the Day of the Dead festival. Earlier in the week we visited the massive flower decorations for the festival in the Cathedral.

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We saw many sandpaintings and altars featuring the Virgin of Guadalupe and other religious figures and iconography.

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Guadalupe grave

Until the late 20th century the Catholic church discouraged participation in the festival. We’re told it doesn’t approve of household altars and theologically it teaches that, with the exception of the resurrection of Jesus the dead do not return to earth. However, the church tries to be present in the cemeteries. At the Panteon General we paused where a catholic mass was being held in the covered walkway beside the niches.

We were told that catholic priests move between the graves saying prayers for the souls of the departed and blessing graves with holy water, but that wasn’t something we saw. There is a great rise of the Pentecostal religions in Mexico and people we spoke to wondered how this may in time affect the Day of the Dead in the future.

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Home of the Dead

We saw graves that were mounds of dirt with simple crosses or markers and elaborate houses for the dead.
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Kristin Norget describes the grave as a home for both the dead and the living. At Day of the Dead when families picnic in the cemetery and hold vigils by the graves, she suggests the living are both hosts and guests of the dead in this house of the dead. She suggests the grave is a familiar and intimate place, a place of memory.

In Oaxaco grieving and remembering are not solitary acts. Is fear of death in our own culture partly the fear of disappearing from the minds of the living? Would a collective act of remembering such as Day of the Dead make us less afraid of dying?

Buckets, Brushes and Blooms

In Oaxaca city the time and day that people visit the cemeteries will vary from cemetery to cemetery and from town to the countryside.

We visit the Panteon General cemetery again on the morning of 2/11. We were told that today is a public holiday to enable families to visit their relatives and that this is the main Oaxacan celebration. We are confused how this fits with the idea of the dead returning to their homes the day before. Some people are cleaning and decorating the graves today whereas others have done this earlier. We saw only a few night vigils here last night when we came for Thorny’s party.

This morning is a colourful riot of plastic buckets, brooms, flowers and cheerful greetings. There is a sense of purpose and energy. We are struck by how the work of caring for the graves is shared between the generations. So much activity meant we didn’t feel so intrusive. People could engage with us directly and it was clear when people did not want to be filmed. Some family members came for a brief visit and we are told others will stay all day.

Invited to the Party

Jane and the Casa Colonial staff hosted a party at Thorny’s grave in Panteon San Miguel (“the new one”) cemetery on the night of 1st November. Together with Jan and Thorny’s friends we sat around on graves eating, drinking and toasting Thorny while the band played. The mescal flowed and we were grateful for the chance to be participants not observers.

SENSORY SURPRISE

At midnight we travelled to, another nearby town, Atzumpa, where the cemetery is situated on a hill overlooking the small town. If we were confronted before, we were shocked by what awaited us here. It was sensory overload. We were assuaged by the smell of marigolds and copal incense, by the colours and candle-lights, by the chaos of the crowd and the very loud carousing band on the brightly lit stage.

There was a seething mass of people. We made our way between graves marked out by candles. There were no paths. We were worried about intruding on people’s private moments of reverie, physically falling onto a grave and our clothes going up in flames. A couple sat quietly beside a grave, often just a simple earth mound covered with flowers.  Family groups lit fires and cooked food. Older people sat a solitary vigil. Children bedded down for the night. Young people texted and tourists gawked.

We felt more intrusive here, perhaps because it felt more private and less structured. It was as if we were crossing a boundary, stepping into people’s personal space. This was a much poorer area, the graves were less demarcated, less concrete, less showy decorations, and we wondered whether more people were awaiting the return of loved ones.

We were aware of the struggle that communities like Atzumpa and Xoxocotlan have in interesting young people in maintaining the Day of the Dead traditions. The introduction of live music is part of the local government trying to engage and entertain. We hoped it wasn’t just for tourists. These Day of the Dead traditions are vigorously marketed to tourists like us as “authentic”. Tourism in turn brings economic benefit and there is value added to the maintenance of traditions.