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

Halloween

We were in New York the week before we came to Oaxaca and were shocked by the pumped up commercial energy around Halloween. We have seen the slow growth of Halloween in Sydney but were unprepared for the costume party shops, the decoration of houses and shops, the zombies and death images everywhere.

In Oaxaca we saw market stalls outside cemeteries selling plastic pumpkins, witch masks and satanic decoration. Roaming the streets and cemeteries we met devils, glowing vampires, mummies, zombies. This was thematically linked to Day of the Dead but part of the great costume party that is Halloween.

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Some see this trend as being a threat to the authenticity of Day of The Dead rituals and the role of these celebrations for nationalistic identity politics. For others it is the logical outcome of the commercialisation and the globalization of culture, particularly among young people.  Globalization has meant both the promotion of a distinct Mexican national identity through Day of the Dead activities and the infiltration of profit based Halloween from the United States.

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The debate about Halloween has been going on since before the 1980s and will be ongoing. Meanwhile we read that not only has American Halloween infiltrated south of the border, Day of the Dead celebrations and rituals have travelled north with Mexican migration.

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.

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?

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.