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.

Xoxo (Ho-ho)

At 9 pm on the night of the 31st October when we approached the Nuevo Panteon cemetery in Xoxocotlan, outside Oaxaca city we encountered huge crowds, a stage with large video screens displaying traditional dancing and music. We thought we were at a pop concert. In the beginning it was hard to tell who were tourists and who weren’t. Once inside the cemetery the separation became clear. We were the awkward awe struck ones stumbling around in the dark with cameras.

We both had a heightened sense of being observers into what was private family business. At the same time, this was a very public and community event. This was exactly the culmination of what we had come here for. The evening at the Xoxo cemetery is the high point of the Day of the Dead package as promoted by regional tourism. It is impossible not to be aware of this. But our experience was much more than this.

Ho Ho Cemetery DSC0349 1_11_13

We were expecting eating and drinking and dancing. Away from the entrance it was quiet. Yes there were strolling mariachi bands and and as the night wore on there may have been more alcohol consumed, but this was not a party. It was a respectful night-long vigil.

Family groups gathered around the grave. Children played with the decorations. Young adults showed off their skeleton makeup. But there were also solitary people in a more reflective space. As an observer it was impossible to know if people were quiet or sad, waiting for family to arrive or for the dead to return or in their private reverie or conversing with the dead.

Some graves suggested wealth with their extensive gravestones, expensive flowers, decorations and candles. Some had sandpaintings on the grave and fencing to demarcate a family plot. Some gravesites were very Catholic while others not.

Even though we were uncomfortable as outsiders it was a very moving experience. We reflected on the distance we put between ourselves and those we know who have died. Culturally we value separation from the dead rather than connection. We encourage ‘letting go’ those who have died rather than welcoming them back into our lives. When we visit a memorial or cemetery we don’t linger. We like to keep the boundary clear between the living and the dead.

As we left Xoxo at midnight, more and more people were arriving and the atmosphere was becoming louder and perhaps more festive. Far from the stillness and solemnity we associate with death.

Santa Muerte

Walking home one night Sarah saw this small Day of the Dead parade consisting of just a few flat bed trucks. Amongst the large figures was Santa Muerte (Saint Death) a folk saint who has a large following in Mexico and the US. She is often depicted as a robed skeleton, usually holding a scythe and globe. Here she is carrying the scales of justice. She is very different to the secular female skeleton figure Catrina (created by Posada) who we encounter everywhere.

We were told that Santa Muerte will grant your wishes, though not necessarily in the way you imagine, and she will always demand something in return. She drives a hard bargain. She is said to be a favourite for those living on the edge of society or those who fear violent death, such as criminals, police, homosexuals and transgender people.

Fusion

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We happened across these young people preparing for what we first thought was a Halloween costume parade. Here it can be hard to tell what skulls and skeletons refer to, but as we looked more closely we saw many traditional Day of the Dead motifs. Apart from some dressed up as priests there were no religious references.

We were impressed by the care they took over their make up and the creativity of their outfits. As they joined many others in the street, there was an even more complex fusion of traditional indigenous motifs and Halloween. We would expect this as Oaxacan young people are steeped in the zombies, vampires and ghouls of American cinema.

Sandpaintings

In the nearby Plaza de la Donza over the week of Day of the Dead five very large sandpaintings were being created. We also saw sandpaintings in front of altars, in churches and public buildings, in shops and at cemeteries.

We wondered about the origin of this tradition. Was it public art expression with a death theme or was it connected in some way to death rituals?

A traditional practice in Teotitlan was that after someone died they were laid on a lime cross in front of the family altar so the soul of the person could enter the earth. Within nine days after burial a tapete (rug) of sand and coloured sawdust was created where the body had been. It was ritually swept up and placed in a cross on the earthen grave. This process symbolized the soul’s final departure and the removal of death from the home. They often had images of the Virgin, a saint or Christ. This was true with many sandpaintings we saw during Day of the Dead.