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.
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.