Death

In the West death may be our nightly entertainment but we are further removed from death than ever before. The medical and professional outsourcing of death means that death has become more invisible in the West. Our own discomfort with death means we are very interested in Day of the Dead rituals.

As Claudio Lomnitz writes : “Today, the decorated sugar skull, the papier-mache skeleton and the Days of the Dead ofrenda are highly visible, internationally recognised signs. Mexico has become a recognised site for alternative deathways in the contemporary global imaginary.”

‘Death and the Idea of Mexico’  p. 467

 

Sugar skulls

In our journey to Oaxaca we looked for a different attitude towards death. Did we find it?

We did find a lighter, more humorous relationship to death in the popular arts and some of the altar decorations. However we found many other things: a respectful and lively exchange between the living and the dead, a challenge to the way we think about homes for the dead, a provocation to ways in which the living remember the dead and perhaps live with an awareness of death.

Sarah does not feel she has been sold a Romantic version of a Mexican way of death, but rather seen the many ways in which we can bring death into life and the ways in which the living fulfil a responsibility towards the dead. The experience was so rich that she no longer worries about whether this is an “invented tradition”. Death is very alive in the Mexican cultural imagination.

faces and skulls

Digby liked the idea of a communal national celebration where the dead are formally remembered by the living. We currently might light a candle for an anniversary, lay a wreath on nominated memorial events, or say a prayer. It would be a completely different event than Anzac Day.

Visiting cemeteries is not all that common in Australia, even less so now as ashes are often scattered. Cemeteries seem sombre lonely places. We wouldn’t think of having a party at the graveside.

Cemetery

We didn’t ever get a straight answer to whether people really experienced the return of the spirits in Day of the Dead celebrations. We wonder whether we can experience the spirits of the dead through acts of memory.

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We were both profoundly affected by our night visits to the cemeteries and are still thinking about what our journey to Mexico means.

The Future

Boy painted up

Many are asking what will be the impact of the commercialization of Day of the Dead? While Day of the Dead involves very private rituals, there are public policy and nationalistic aspects to the celebrations. There are showcase altars everywhere, parades, sandpaintings, costume competitions and entertainment organised for cemeteries. There is profit to be made from Day of the Dead tours.

small girl at grave

Will the act of “marketing” “authentic Oaxacan culture be responsible for changing it?

 

Kristin Norgent sees two deeply intertwined futures “One of them will be polished, public, official, and increasingly rooted in tourism: a package ready for leisured consumption. The other will continue to be private and intimate: a communal devotion of various members of the popular classes…No doubt, one aspect of the celebration will serve to reinforce the other, perhaps even happily.”

Days of Death, Days of Life’  p. 263

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”

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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grave 5
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.

Respect for the Dead

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Los Dias de Muertos (The Day of the Dead) is celebrated in different ways throughout Mexico where different indigenous groups have their own customs.

The festival happens anywhere around the 31st October, 1st and 2nd November. It is a time when homes and cemeteries are transformed.  The living expectantly await the annual visit of the souls with whom they will interact, establishing an intense dialogue with them. This dialogue between the living and the dead takes on many different forms.

For some people placing offerings on the household altar shows their belief that the dead return to visit. The returning dead are fed, welcomed into the home, and celebrated. The altar and special meal is a private expression of remembering the dead. Visiting the graves or the night vigil at the graveside is the more public expression of the celebration and is very widespread. The dead are spoken of and remembered.

We have only experienced Day of the Dead in Oaxaco, both in the city and in some surrounding towns, discovering for ourselves the great differences in traditions. While we have been reading what we can and speaking with Oaxacans, these are only our own impressions and interpretations.

altars LIO20518

We saw altars in most shops and many of these were personalized, like the one at the Casa. However, there were also showcase altars in public buildings. Most altars were colourful, vibrant and imaginative. Perhaps altars are also seasonal decoration like Christmas is in our own culture. The altars show the mix of “folk catholic” and indigenous (some say “pagan”) beliefs and traditions.

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Although the visit to the graveyard aligns with the Catholic celebration of  ‘All Souls Day’ on November 2nd, the meaning of the visit may not be traditional or religious. Some say Europeans visit the cemetery on All Souls Day to remember departed loved ones whereas Mexicans see this as a time when their deceased return to the Earth to spend time with their relatives. The church no longer opposes Day of the Dead activities and instead direct it’s focus, for example saying prayers or masses at the cemetery.

altars LIO20547 _1

Day of the Dead demonstrates to the community that you show care and respect to the dead as well as for your living friends and family. It maintains a awareness of the thin line separating the living and the dead, after all we live with the uncertainty about our own death. However, for many Oaxacans the expense of making an altar, preparing special food to share and buying flowers and candles for the grave is getting more difficult every year.